sliding scale hatred

Hatred of the item below can be a life altering experience.


Does anyone still hate slide rules?

I could only find a couple of people on the Internet who do.

Commenting on Sci Fi writer Jerry Pournelle, this BBS commenter said:

If you can't do math, you'd hate slide rules. I was good in math - and still hated slide rules. Then calculators came onto the market in mass - after I'd already graduated from college.

Slide rule hatred was also expressed at this Mac-related site:

In 1960 (high school for me) we marveled at tiny $100 transistor radios and IBM Selectric electric typewriters, no small personal computers or calculators (we still used and hated sliderules).
But that's about it. No one else seems to hate slide rules.

Except me, of course. I hate them with an all-consuming passion. (I'm deadly serious; this is an emotional post to write.)

I never liked math, but I could do all the calculations necessary to get by at Algebra and even Calculus. It was in Chemistry where I met my Waterloo -- in the form of the hated slide rule. I don't know whether the exams have the same kinds of problems today, but I can tell you that I only passed high school chemistry because of an agreement with the teacher. (And even then with a "D" grade.) This was because I had a complete and total mental block with the damned slide rule. I was a slide rule idiot and I never could figure out exactly how to use it.

And "exactly" isn't exactly the right word, because there's nothing exact about a slide rule. It uses logarithmic scales to give you a pretty close approximation of the answer. In analog form, not in digital form. You have to use your head to come up with the actual numbers of the answers (and, for that matter, the numerators and denominators). Infuriating. I couldn't learn how to even slide the silly slide or the cursed cursor thingie or where, and I just hated it. I mean really, really hated it.

Knowing the formulas and how to do the problem was not enough in chemistry. It was simply impossible -- and I do mean impossible -- to perform multiplication and long division and get the answers in the amount of time allotted for the exams. I know this, because multiplication and long division were all I could do, and I felt like a total fool. A complete loser.

So scratch Chemistry. And Physics. And any hope of ever becoming a doctor.

At least, so I thought until 1974. I was thinking about quitting college because all was not going well, when it occurred to me that I might just switch gears and give the hard sciences another try. By then electronic calculators were all the rage, so I bought one, and enrolled in freshman chemistry. This time, I knew it would be a snap, because I really didn't have any problem with the equations or the theory; my only problem was that I hadn't had time to perform the calculations.

Time. That's what it's all about. In fact, the slide rule was invented in 1625 for that very reason. Once the calculator came along, the anachronistic slide rule was as doomed as the horse drawn carriage.

What scientist in his right mind would ever use a slide rule when a calculator was available?

As it turned out, UC Berkeley's Chemistry professor, that's who!

On the very first day of class (this was the summer of 1974), I showed up all eager and enthusiastic for my "second chance" -- this time assisted by new technology. My hopes were dashed by a grim announcement, made in the first five minutes.

"After thinking it over, we have decided not to allow calculators," he said. To add insult to injury, he claimed that even though he preferred slide rules, he had nothing against calculators, but that they "discriminate" against "low income students."

True in a way. In those days, a slide rule cost $6.00 and my calculator had cost $49.95. But the books cost a lot too, and I saw no reason why they couldn't allow both. I was so disgusted that I dropped the course. I also dropped out of college for three years.

I know this will sound hard to believe, but there used to be a sort of nerdy slide rule "cult" which regarded proficiency with that awful instrument as an integral rite of passage on the road to becoming "a real scientist." They wore them on their hips in a manner evocative of the way detectives carry guns.

Not so today's wimpy scientists. Many of them wouldn't know what to do with a slide rule unless they sat down with one and read the manual.

I suspect that there are a lot of people today who would have hated slide rules as I did (and still do), but they don't even know it.

You don't know how lucky you are.

But I've never been one to try to impose my standards on other people and I don't believe in being judgmental. I realize that there are a number of retroheads and nostalgia freaks who might want to play with an actual slide rule, but who don't happen to have one lying around. (I might find the thought a little sickening, and maybe even repugnant, but those are just my hangups, as I don't believe repugnance involves wisdom.)

I know I'm really sticking my neck out here, but in the interest of fairness and out of respect for lifestyle differences, I simply will not allow myself to be blinded by my admitted hatred. And bigotry.

It's time to bury the hatchet.

So, with that in mind, and in the interest of continued advancement of human knowledge, I've decide to let bygones be bygones.

And therefore, I hereby link to a genuine Java Interactive Slide rule which anyone can use.

Go ahead!

(I'm so damned tolerant that I won't even tell people what they can do with it.)

posted by Eric on 04.24.06 at 06:12 PM


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Tracked on May 3, 2006 7:20 AM


I thought they were neat. And damn easy to use. Move this, slide that, look at two numbers, more sliding, look at another two numbers and get your answer. What's hard about that?

Alan Kellogg   ·  April 25, 2006 2:17 AM

Moving and sliding is one thing. Thinking about what is being moved and why, knowing where to look and why -- they're not quite the same thing as knowing how to multiply, divide, or find square roots. It requires relearning math, or learning it in a new way. How many graduate students in Math today would be able to use it without a manual?

Eric Scheie   ·  April 25, 2006 8:40 AM

Stand by the river long enough, and all your hated technologies will float by- dead.

Sorry... can't remember what I'm paraphrasing... Some Chinese proverb.

Anyway congrats!

Harkonnendog   ·  April 25, 2006 7:42 PM

Thanks. It's not often that I'm congratulated on my failure!


Eric Scheie   ·  April 25, 2006 10:49 PM

Sorry for your Slipstick Lockup in school. I suppose slide rules are not for everyone just as the piano is not for everyone. But, saying that a slide rule only performs approximations is like saying that logarithms are only approximations of real numbers. If this were the case, then the first
Apollo moon shot would only had approximately entered the moon's gravitational pull and never reached an orbit.

Ray Johnson   ·  May 19, 2006 9:40 PM

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