The Magic Stick, or How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Slide Rule
By Lisa Fritscher
[Lisa Fritscher joins us this week as a guest author. I'll let her introduce herself... -Ed.]
I have a confession to make…I’m a geek. I have always been a geek. I got my first computer, a Timex Sinclair 1000, at the age of six. I used to play chess on that thing, although the whopping 2K memory meant that I could make my move in the morning, go to school all day, and then come home in time for the computer to make its move. Ah, the memories!
However, I have never been a math geek. Sure, I learned algebra when I was eight thanks to the Commodore 64’s Dungeons of the Algebra Dragons. But that just made me a gamer geek. I quickly learned that I didn’t really have to solve all the problems in order to beat the game.
A year ago, however, something happened that made me change my mind about math. My dad is an industrial engineer and a math and science genius. He went to college in the days when the calculator was just starting to take the place of the slide rule.
Anyway, he and I went to the U.S. Space and Rocket Center in Huntsville. I love space and rocketry, and the museum had a large exhibit dedicated to Werner von Braun, one of the preeminent rocket scientists of the 20th century. The exhibit included von Braun’s slide rule.
Somehow Dad and I got into a conversation about slide rules and how they were used to design rockets. Although I hate math, I love vintage mechanical devices, and our conversation managed to pique my interest.
Over the next few months, I forgot about our conversation that day. Dad remembered, though. Last Christmas he surprised me with a slide rule of my own, a vintage 1950s model that he found online. He also put together an extensive, step by step instruction manual.
I was fascinated! Together we worked through the instructions. It took me awhile to grasp the concept of proportional distances between numbers, but once I did, it all began to come together. Dad informs me that the slide rule uses base 10 logarithms, a concept at which I still nod and smile dumbly.
As it turned out, my lack of understanding of logarithms didn’t matter at all. As a mechanical device, all I needed to know to operate the slide rule was the step by step order of operations. I became increasingly excited as I learned to perform progressively more complicated steps.
Today I truly love my slide rule, not for its inherent use in mathematics, but as a fascinating vintage mechanical device. I am in awe of those who were able to use such a simple piece of equipment to design such complicated machines. I would encourage anyone with a love of science toys to check out the humble slide rule. Though it may be obsolete, the legacy of the slide rule lives on.