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Bill Wickes: It All Adds Up

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joe...@usa.net

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Aug 21, 1998, 3:00:00 AM8/21/98
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"So, who exactly *is* this Bill Wickes guy that everybody keeps
quoting, referring to, and practically worshipping?"

Well, I'm glad you asked. The following article from HP's own
employee magazine should answer that question pretty well.

Bill will be at the Annual Handheld Computing Conference, August
29-30, 1998 (see http://www.handheld.org/ for information).
If you can't attend, be sure to get a copy of the videotape from
Jake Schwartz! (see http://www.waterw.com/~jake-s/video.htm for
information).

-Joe-

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[Title] "It All Adds Up"
by Jay Coleman

MEASURE magazine, July-August 1991, page 18.
Copyright (C) 1991 by Hewlett-Packard Company.
Reprinted with permission.

[Subtitle] A one-time "outlaw" joins HP and becomes the father of
scientific handheld calculators.

[Photograph] Bill Wickes holding HP48 with a circuit board
extending from Port 1; a ribbon cable snakes from it to his
desktop PC.
[Caption] It takes a love of puzzle-solving and "a warped
mind" to design HP's current crop of best-selling scientific
calculators, says Corvallis (Oregon) Division's R&D project
manager Bill Wickes.

CORVALLIS, Oregon -- Bill Wickes vividly remembers his first
Hewlett-Packard calculator: the HP 45.

"It was 1973 and I was a new physics instructor at Princeton
University," Bill says. "The calculator cost $400, and those were
the days when $400 was a lot of money. My wife was utterly mystified
why I would spend so much.

"A couple of days later she spent about the same amount on a set of
crystal and china. Neither of us understood why the other person
wanted those things. Today she's quick to point out that she still
has the crystal and china, but I've long since traded the HP 45 for
another calculator."

In retrospect, the calculator was a fantastic deal for Bill -- and
HP.

If Bill Wickes isn't the father of HP's current crop of best-selling
scientific calculators, at the very least the R&D project manager at
the Corvallis (Oregon) Division is the favorite son.

Says one Corvallis colleague, "R&D is a collaborative effort, but
I'd say that Bill's contribution to the current line of our
technical products is 80 to 90 percent of what's there. He's an
amazing guy."

What makes Bill so remarkable? Take your pick: He's a nationally
known crusader for calculators in the classroom; a Ph.D.
physicist from Princeton; "world-class" Trivial Pursuit player,
according to local sources; and a brilliant software designer.

[Photograph] Five team members walking together.
[Caption] Inspiration comes from a variety of environments,
including a stroll around the site lake. Bill Wickes' team
includes Charlie Patton, Max Jones, Gabe Eisenstein and
Diana Byrne.

The story really begins in 1981 when Bill was a physics professor at
the University of Maryland. He bought an HP 41C advanced
programmable calculator capable of running more than 2,500 programs.
It was the most advanced handheld calculator of its era. To Bill,
the HP 41C was more than a complex tool; it was a challenge.

"It was like a puzzle," Bill says. "I wanted to dissect the program
code, figure out how it works and then make it do things it wasn't
supposed to be able to do."

Within a few months of trial-and-error experimentation, he developed
"synthetic programming" for the calculator -- new instructions which
directed the HP 41C to "store data in places that weren't supposed
to exist, print characters the printer didn't know and greatly
shorten ways of doing things that were meant to be done the long
way," according to one publication.

For example, a cartoon-symbol "goose" normally moves from left to
right across the calculator's display screen to let users know that
the machine is working. In a humorous vein, Bill even perfected the
backward-facing goose. Before he was finished, the goose could fly
backwards, flap its wings, fly in flocks and collide with
self-respecting, right-facing geese.

"In a sense," Bill says, "I was an outlaw."

Three months later, Bill published his findings in a book and sold
20,000 copies of the English version, 8,000 in German and a few
thousand French-language copies. A decade later, he still gets
orders for the book.

Corvallis management did the only logical thing: they hired Bill to
develop the HP 41C's descendants.

Bill became a project manager six months into his HP career and his
software-design team set out to develop an entirely new operating
system for handheld calculators.

In 1985 the team virtually locked itself into Bill's home recreation
room for three days of pizza and brainstorming. If you could develop
the perfect scientific calculator, the team theorized, how would it
look, feel and operate? [Note: back then, "virtually" meant "for all
practical purposes" or "almost entirely", not "electronically" like
it does today. -jkh-]

The result was the HP 28C, the first handheld calculator capable of
symbolic, as well as numeric, calculations. The HP 28C -- and a
later version, the HP 28S -- quickly became the preferred
calculators of U.S. college students studying engineering and
mathematics. In fact, the HP 28S is a requirement for all cadets at
the U.S. Military Academy. [Now it's the HP48. -jkh-]

"Calculus instruction hadn't changed much since Sir Isaac Newton
invented it 300 years ago," says Clain Anderson, Corvallis Division
education program manager, "and Bill and his team changed everything
in a matter of months."

Not content with merely revolutionizing the handheld
scientific-calculator market, the Corvallis designers developed
several more products with advanced features during the next five
years.

In 1990, the division introduced the HP 48SX scientific expandable
calculator. It combines the calculation and graphics capabilities of
the HP 28S with the flexibility and expandability of the HP 41. For
instance, students can enter equations into the calculator just as
they are written in a textbook.

"The HP 28S was our most successful product to date and the HP 48SX
surpassed that," Clain Anderson adds. "Bill's leadership helped us
develop a range of calculators that is the best set of computation
products available anywhere."

"Bill and all of the people at HP are good listeners," says John
Kenelly, alumni professor in Clemson's engineering and mathematics
department. "Some of us in the department suggested several
improvements to the HP 28C and many of them are included in the HP
48SX. That's the calculator we recommend to all students in
engineering and mathematics."

John, a national leader in calculus reform, firmly believes that
calculators have an important role in the classroom. While some
academicians maintain that students can't learn mathematics properly
with calculators, John argues that the products enable students to
concentrate on math *concepts* rather than *mechanics*. He credits
Bill, a former university instructor, with aiding his campaign.

"Bill has been a constant source of help and inspiration to us,"
John says. "He fundamentally *knows* the educational process and
what it takes to develop good scientists and engineers. He's one
hell of a smart guy."

[Photograph] Bill and two children at telescope at night.
[Caption] Bill Wickes used to teach physics and research
astronomy. Today his backyard astronomy is a hobby he shares
with his children, Lara and Kenneth.

Says Dennis York, a Corvallis R&D colleague, "There's a term in our
business called 'polymath', and it's defined as encyclopedic
learning, especially in mathematics. That definition fits our
products -- and Bill -- well."

An ability to translate complex mathematics principles into
bite-sized, easy-to-understand language is a gift Bill has,
co-workers say. Bill, who once taught a nontechnical university
course called Physics for Poets, says that it's a natural ability.

"To some people, learning physics is like taking a drink of water
out of a fire hose," Bill says. "But I've always approached it as a
fun puzzle to solve.

"It's just like trying to figure out how to make the 'goose' fly
backwards. You have to have a certain kind of warped mind like mine
to appreciate it."

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