The Demise of the Slide Rule


It’s always strange to read a science fiction novel of the 1940s or 1950s, and see someone who is supposed to live in a distant future still using a slide rule. Understandably given that the miniaturisation initiated by the transistor only just had started, and real computers (i.e. mainframe computers) filled a whole room in a dedicated building.

Still, when its replacement by the pocket calculator happened, it did so with amazing speed. When I started at university in 1973 the slide rule was still the thing that students cherished to perform complex calculations – that, and books filled with log and sine and cosine tables. I never bought a slide rule, because in your first year, the complexity of the calculations did not warrant their use.

However, in 1975, during my second year of engineering studies, I started to get the feeling that I was at a disadvantage during the practical sessions since many of the students in my year now had these new-fangled things called pocket calculators, and those setting the exercises now started assuming that most if not all of the students had them.

So in the end I managed to convince my parents of my need for one of these calculators, even if it cost the equivalent of £500. The strange thing was how the switch from slide rule to calculator happened in the space of less than two years, thereby leaving those who still had slide rules for sale to future generations of students high and dry with unsellable stock.

I seem to remember Isaac Asimov at one time reminiscing on his new edition of “An Easy Introduction to the Slide Rule”, and how it appeared in print just when exactly this same transition was happening in the US. But then again, the ease of use of a calculator compared with a slide rule made just such an “easy introduction” totally superfluous.

The net result for me personally is that I never owned a slide rule, and never have known how to use one. I can’t say that I ever felt this to be a loss.

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