Thursday, April 21, 2016

Shakuntala Devi....the human computer

Today saw some posts mentioning that today is the death anniversary of the 'human computer' Shakuntala Devi. She was aptly called 'human computer' for her extraordinary ability to perform mathematical calculations of any magnitude like a flash, all in her mind.

Brought back some old memories. She had visited Dharwad, my hometown in India, in early eighties (81 or 82). The Dharwad All India Radio station had conducted an interview of her. My father was one of the panelists. I think there was one more gentleman.

My father (US Hegde​) had a particular task assigned to him. That was to come up with a few questions of very large calculations and answers to them so that those questions could be posed to Shakuntala Devi in the radio interview.

In hindsight, it appears to me there was a reason why my father was selected for that part of the interview. At that time, he was probably one of the very few people, if any, in and around our town, who had an advanced scientific calculator. Back then, even scientific calculators had not become common let alone computers. Many people did not even know about computers let alone see one. Scientific calculators were very slowly making their entry but engineering colleges, science faculties still did most of the advanced calculations using slide rulers, logarithm books and other traditional methods. But to come up with some really large calculations to test Shakuntala Devi, they were not going to be adequate.

The then director of AIR, Dharwad (Ms. Nayak or Ms. Murthy) knew that my father had the most advanced scientific calculator, a Texas Instruments product, a gift from his closest friend Dr. Koliwad (Krishna Koliwad​) who worked at TI, USA back then. The same Dr. Koliwad finally retired as an eminent scientist from NASA.

Using his TI scientific calculator and some custom programs, my father prepared a few questions involving large calculations and answers. It was very very important to make doubly sure that answers were correct. Otherwise in some other interviews, the people asking the questions were embarrassed when they themselves had wrong answers. When the answer given by Shakuntala Devi did not match the wrong answers they had gone with, the 'human computer' had mocked them and had challenged them to go back and redo their calculations. :)

I do not remember if the interview was live or recorded. But it was kind fun to hear it and the human computer spit out answers like a machine gun. Hats off to her extraordinary skills.

My father's passion for Texas Instruments calculators still continues. He is probably one of the most advanced power users of their products. He has a large library of custom programs that run on TI products and perform all sorts of calculations. He probably has 8-10 TI scientific calculators, successive generations of the original TI product he got in mid 70s. Latest one probably is TI-89 with graphing capabilities.

TI calculators, especially the programmable ones, are delights to professionals as well as hobbyists. According my father, once you get hooked with TI calculators and learn how to program them you won't like anything else. Casio, HP etc. come nowhere near. Who knows!

Scientific calculators became somewhat common for engineering students from mid 80s. That too some average Casio types. That was all that was needed. Highly specialized TI kind of calculators were not required. By the time we started engineering in 90s calculators were also being slowly phased out as PCs started becoming common.

Oh well,  good old fond memories.

Copied from Facebook status.


sunaath said...

Nostalgia is pleasant!

Mahesh Hegade said...

Thanks Sunaath, Sir.

Shailesh Hegde said...


Prof. Hegde provided constructive feedback on these TI calculators to all levels of design, development and management (including the top-most) teams. His passion for the work he undertakes is enormous!!

Mahesh Hegade said...

@Shailesh - yes true. He is really into TI calculators. Many more interesting incidents to blog about his passion for TI calculators.