Before I ever took a programming class, before I ever looked at the HTML behind a website, before I even really knew what programming was, I had a TI-83 calculator.
I graduated from high school in 2003. TI-83 calculators had been standard in our math classes for years at that point—more than one of my friends inherited their graphing calculators from siblings who went off to college. Texas Instruments debuted the TI-83 in 1996. The version I bought my freshman year had one small improvement on the 1996 version: mine had flash memory, which let me store more applications than the TI-83s inherited by my classmates. How much flash memory? 512 kilobytes, though most of that was taken up by the calculator’s operating system. I still had 160 kilobytes to play around with. (In 2001, Texas Instruments redesigned the TI-83 again, upping that flash memory to 1.5 megabytes.)
Our math teachers distributed applications that would help us with whatever unit we were working on, like a program for solving quadratic equations. Depending on the teacher, she might just distribute programs to a few students and then rely on those students to disperse those programs out to the rest of us. And while we were passing around programs we needed for math class, we were swapping plenty of other files: games like Pac Man and Lemmings were hot commodities, though we also used our calculators to share notes with one another.
Where did we get these games? Not from the internet, surprisingly. We downloaded the latest, greatest games from kids in other math classes, older siblings, and friends who went to other schools, sharing every game we got our hands on with our friends.
But what do you get when you’re dealing with a bunch of advanced math students who don’t really feel like solving yet another equation? Someone starts coding up their own programs to solve homework problems faster—and then they realize that they can make much more elaborate games.
Homebrew Games on the TI-83
My introduction to programming was as simple as reading the code for the programs I already had on my calculator (particularly those for solving math formulas), then changing out variables to solve my own problems. I did the same with some of the simpler games I had access to—text-based RPGs were easy to take apart and put back together with my own characters.
I didn’t share most of the programs I wrote, but I did start thinking about how to write something bigger. Most of my friends were into computers to some extent—one or two were even those stereotypical programming-since-I-was-12 wunderkinds. They provided a little advice and ended up working with me on the first programming project I did with a team.
Several of us signed up for a business class with a group project requirement: we had to create a product and figure out how to sell that product. My friends and I decided to write and sell a text adventure for the TI-83. Our hero had to collect weapons (ranging from rotten apples to bombs) and fight opponents (including both a very mean sheep and a troll). I don’t remember what grade we got, but I do remember the teacher being quite impressed that we’d actually come up with a product from scratch. Her reaction was the most memorable thing about the whole experience for me—honestly, putting together that game didn’t feel like a lot of work, especially in comparison with writing up the business plan.
For the first time, I considered learning more about programming than what I could hack together on my own. There’s a straight line between writing games for my TI-83 calculator and the Java class I enrolled in my first semester at college.
I’m not alone, either: as I was writing this article, I mentioned my experience to friends with varying degrees of programming experience. I heard a constant refrain of, “Oh, the TI-83? I wrote my first ever program for that calculator!” Youth isn’t a much of a factor—there are kids today buying TI-83s to use in high school and college math classes.
The TI-83, Today
You can still buy a brand new TI-83 calculator: Amazon has them for $91 at the time I’m writing this article. (Of course, you will also want the Graphlink cord to hook up your calculator to other calculators and to your computer so that you can download awesome games from your friends’ calculators.) That price is a little astounding: I paid just under $100 for the same calculator more than fifteen years ago. As someone who has watched the prices of computers and mobile phones drop in the same time period, that sort of price stability is unusual. There are plenty of alternatives on the market these days that are not only far better, but actually free.
Graphing calculators are ultimately a racket: The Washington Post estimated that Texas Instruments spends between $15 and $20 to manufacture a graphing calculator. Even if a retailer sells a calculator well below the manufacturer’s recommended pricing (like Amazon does), Texas Instruments is looking at a profit margin over 50 percent. That’s just based on hardware, though: Texas Instruments does support their entire line of graphing calculators far beyond what you might expect—the company provides support, training, and free technology to teachers through its Teachers Teaching with Technology program.
There are free virtual versions of the TI-83 (along with some of Texas Instruments’ other graphing calculators) online. It’s not quite the same, but for students who can’t afford a graphing calculator, installing an emulator on their smartphone or computer is an option.
That’s a necessary step, given that the TI-83 remains the heavyweight of the high school math scene: math textbooks walk students through how to use this particular calculator and standardized tests allow only a handful of alternatives (smartphones are entirely excluded). In 2014, Texas Instruments sold 93 percent of the graphing calculators sold in the US!
Someday, I expect that Texas Instruments’ grasp on high school math students will loosen—if only because the high cost of such outdated tools only gets harder to justify. In the meanwhile, though, there’s is a standard tool in schools across the country which students can learn to program. Graphing calculators may feel outdated to people with access to other platforms, but to a student who may rely on a smartphone or a library computer for internet access, the TI-83 is the one piece of technology where she can take programs apart and see how they really work.
The TI-83 Ecosystem, Today
There are long-standing resources for learning to program in TI-BASIC (the programming language used for Texas Instruments’ line of graphing calculators). Though not affiliated with Texas Instruments, ticalc.org has offered tutorials and other resources since 1996 (the same year the TI-83 debuted).
There are plenty of other resources that weren’t around when I was in high school: there’s a subreddit devoted just to writing TI-BASIC programs, as well as tutorials on practically every site you can think of (WikiHow, Imgur, and YouTube, for example). Despite this wealth of information, however, most math classes using graphing calculators restrict themselves to exactly that use case—students may expect to download programs onto their calculators so that they can crank through problem sets, but they aren’t taught about how to create their own programs.
We’re at an educational transition right now: in the U.S, most schools are looking for any opportunity to add programming classes that they can think of. Whether or not we believe that everyone should have the ability to code, improving diversity in tech means ensuring access to technical education for everyone. Coming up with the money for more computers and curricula is one of the pain points for many educational institutes—yet there’s a device with widely available tutorials already in many students’ hands.
Using graphing calculators to teach programming may be the easiest, fastest, and least expensive way to improve technical education in the U.S. If Texas Instruments saw an opportunity to sell more calculators, the company would probably write curricula and train math teachers to deliver it. (If you’ve got a connection at Texas Instruments, feel free to encourage them to push their graphing calculators as a programming platform!) Until Texas Instruments sees the value in doing that work, the TI-83 may still be a useful tool for organizations looking for ways to teach the fundamentals of programming to high school and college students.
A Last Thought
As I was writing this article, I contacted a few old friends from high school who were in the group I worked with on that class project. It turns out that the experience wasn’t universally memorable. Maybe that’s because those friends had some programming experience before they worked on our class project (they certainly did the heavy lifting on writing our game). But my personal experience of writing this game was formative.
My high school offered a handful of programming classes and I never considered taking them before I started tinkering with TI-BASIC. I got into programming a little too late and had to wait until college to take my first programming class. I liked computers, but I saw them as a finished product—I could buy software but that was the only way to add programs to my computer. A few lines of code on my calculator changed all that. I learned a new way to think about my computer, which has driven my professional life ever since.
Thursday Bram writes about technology for publications ranging from Bitch Magazine to Entrepreneur. You can find Thursday at her website, ThursdayBram.com.