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(Image: Texas Instruments)
1977 — Texas Instruments TI-59 programmable calculator
The year was 1977, and Texas Instruments released a device that was a scientific calculator at its core, but so much more. The TI-59 had a lot of firsts inside: solid-state ROM cartridges, magnetic memory strips for storing programs, and a printer module that produced hardcopies of technical programs.
The TI-59 was primarily used in technical endeavors such as engineering. Many of the cartridges had basic programs used in specific industries to simplify complex calculations of a repetitive nature. User's clubs sprang up worldwide, where programs were traded with glee.
Many of my early days as a geophysicist were spent hunched over the TI-59, running calculations simplified by programs loaded by reading various memory strips. The strip reader was a bit fussy, and it sometimes took several tries to get the little programs to load properly.
Clipping the TI-59 to the thermal PC100C printer module (pictured above) made it possible to save results to paper, an unusual feature for programmable scientific calculators. This feature, coupled with the memory card reader and the ROM cartridge, set the stage for computers with similar I/O capabilities.
TI59.com is a good source to see the full history of the TI-59.
On display at the Bolo EPFL, Lausanne, France. (Image: Rama & Musee Boloe)
1987 — Apple Newton
Jumping forward a decade, we witnessed the introduction of the Apple Newton. This was produced during Steve Jobs' hiatus from the company, and not finding it worthy of the Apple name, he killed it when he returned to take over the helm at Apple.
The Newton MessagePad was a large PDA that tried to do a variety of tasks with inconsistent results. The stylus was used to write naturally anywhere on the screen. The Newton would transcribe the handwriting to digital text for use in the PDA functions. While this handwriting recognition was advanced for its time, it was not accurate enough to make most users comfortable.
The Newton eventually had a modem option for getting online, a true advancement in mobile technology.
The Newton, cancelled in 1998, still has an active user community, and can be found online for purchase even today. The team responsible for the handwriting recognition in the Newton went on to form Ritepen, the folks behind Evernote.
1989 — Poqet PC
When you think of pocket PC, you normally think of Microsoft's early PDA efforts, but this one from the Poqet Computer Corporation appeared in 1989 and brought power to the handheld category. It did so by running MS-DOS on a tiny clamshell device that could run 10 to 100 hours on two AA batteries. This was accomplished by aggressive power management techniques employed by Poquet.
Fujitsu bought Poqet and released one advanced model, the Poqet PC Plus, with more memory, I/O capability, and PCMCIA card expansion. Unfortunately, this model was bigger and weighed almost two pounds, and it was expensive, so it never went anywhere.