Electronic Musing 1.

There are those who may come across this web site and wonder what on earth a slide rule was, why it was ever important, and why should anyone be showing any interest in the 21st century. What it was will become obvious elsewhere, the two ‘why’ questions could be considered as follows:

Our media regularly carries comments on the declining standards of mathematics across the whole population, usually vigorously denied by our politicians. For those of us of ‘a certain age’, where mathematics was a fact of life and mental arithmetic a capability instilled rigorously and regularly, it is very difficult to see how any of this or previous government ‘puff’ about standards improving holds any water at all. There are those who date the start of this decline to the demise of the slide rule and the advent of the cheap electronic calculator, and again it is very difficult to argue against this.

Ownership of a slide rule was a rite-of-passage that required much thought in its selection, purchase, and then learning its effective use. Ownership of a calculator can never replicate this. Using a slide rule meant that you developed a capability with, and understanding of, numbers that is certainly not the same with an electronic calculator. Calculators, even the most expensive, do not have the same cachet or permanence that a slide rule did, and it may be that this very impermanence was the start of a slovenliness and indolence in our mathematical thinking and actions – just press a few buttons and it has to be right!

image001.jpg (28553 bytes)
The image is fairly unusual in that it shows famous inventors James Watson and Francis Crick of DNA fame in 1953, Crick using his slide rule to point to the DNA Helix. How many images can you find of a famous inventor with his calculator? For a start they don’t point as well!

"Dad says that anyone who can't use a slide rule is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. Mine is a beauty - a K&E 20-inch Log-log Duplex Decitrig"

From Have Space Suit - Will Travel, 1958, Robert A. Heinlein.

This quote from a character in a science fiction book written nearly half a century ago seems extreme, but it exemplifies two important traits that have long gone: a view that maths and its tools were important, and a real pride in the tool itself. To-day’s slide rule collector would still find a K&E 20-inch Log-log Duplex Decitrig a thing of beauty, but re-writing Heinlein’s words with today’s emphasis shows just how meaningless and nonsensical the same sentiment has become when referred to a calculator. Perhaps it is just my age and background that makes it so: "Dad says that anyone who can't use a calculator is a cultural illiterate and should not be allowed to vote. Mine is a beauty – it is a Casio 345 made in Taiwan and cost 2 from Argos". No, I just can not get the same significance out of the words!

Perhaps we should all start using slide rules again and see a real improvement in our mathematical capabilities!