Elizabeth Lavin

Technology

The Calculator That Changed the World

Nothing can replace the famous Texas Instruments product that Vonnie Howard helped create.

The TI-83 plus graphing calculator, originally placed on shelves in 1999, is the third-highest-selling graphing calculator on Amazon. Think about that for a second. A tech product built 15 years ago is still the third-most popular of its kind.

Students worldwide have Vonnie Howard to thank (or loathe, depending on their academic enthusiasm). After arriving at Texas Instruments in 1985, Howard worked in the consumer products division, creating educational toys that talked. By the late ’80s, she had joined the team that would go on to create the TI-83 line. More than 24 million have been sold to date.
“I know a lot of people look at this as like, ‘Well, it’s just a calculator,’ ” Howard says. “But it’s continued to evolve since the beginning. And as one of its engineers, it’s been very cool to be a part of that and to see its use in the classroom and its impact on education.”

As smartphones and tablets and apps flooded the market, the TI-83 Plus stayed on top. Part of that success, Howard says, is rooted in TI’s insistence on working with teachers. From the late ’80s through today, TI engineers have developed the calculator with their help, insisting on feedback throughout the development process.

And, in a lot of ways, the TI-83 begat the app-mad world that followed its release. On many high schoolers’ calculators, games like Tetris, Dope Wars, and Phoenix have sat alongside sine, cosine, and tangent, a classroom-distracting yield of the product’s programmability. (TI has actually run an application development internship, and some of the apps have shipped with the calculator.) Despite the implications on students’ productivity, Howard says that’s part of the TI-83’s appeal—and legacy.

“If it’s this thing that’s only useful for learning, I don’t think it’s going to be that popular,” she says. “But if it’s something that they can actually create and innovate on themselves, I think it’s much more.”

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