Lost in Time

Long, long ago in a nearby land lived a lot of men and women who knew how to use a slide rule. It was a wonderful thing that could help these men and women do very complex mathematics that now we need computers to do. With the use of these things, humans invented computers and put people into space.

There were always a bunch of these around my house, (there still are) because my dad was a mathematician. Sometimes my dad attempted to teach me to use one, but those moments never went well. Using a slide rule was second nature to my dad and he wasn’t the most patient person in the world. I don’t think he ever thought about how long it it had taken him to learn. Still, he had one in high school as did all the smart kids in my classes. I was in dumb kids math.

Along with the slide rule were books of tables. I tossed dozens of these in the great purge of 2017 because they literally have no meaning at all to anyone anymore.

I still look at slide rules in wonderment just like my dad would probably look at my cell phone if he suddenly appeared in my living room. The difference is, he would soon be able to work the cell phone. I’ll never be able to use his slide rules.

BUT…a couple of years ago I participated in my second ever demonstration (my first was Earth Day, 1970, the first one ❤ ). It was the March for Science. I made a poster to honor my dad who was a scientist in Colorado Springs (where I marched).

March for Science Poster

It was a chilly day and I was already suffering from osteoarthritis in my left hip though at that point I just knew I couldn’t walk very well, and I hurt, I didn’t know why. It took science to determine what was wrong, mathematicians to devise the most accurate way to measure the repairs I would need, and a scientist to repair me.

The March for Science in Colorado Springs was a wonderful experience. It was a small march, mostly families and earnest nerds like this man holding a sign that my dad could have read.



In case you’re curious about slide rules, I found some videos on Youtube. This video is even more obscure in its explanation and instruction than was my dad. My dad’s explanation was directed toward showing me how to use a slide rule to get answers to math problems. It probably would have worked on a person who didn’t hyperventilate as soon as numbers were put in front of her.


19 thoughts on “Lost in Time

  1. I wasn’t great at it, but I could do some stuff on a slide rule. Then along came calculators and computers. I did a project for my dad one summer in college, key punching in data, so you know how long ago it was. My pay came in the form of a fancy HP calculator. And now most of our phones can do all that and more.

  2. Thanks for that memory jog. I still know the principals of logarithms and antilogarithms, but never used a slide rule. Perhaps something to catch up on. I love learning new things. I did algebra for 5 years in school and knew so much and now it has disappeared: a shame really.

    • I discovered about 20 years ago that if I don’t write things down, I can usually solve the problem. I learned that from watching Stephen Hawking give a talk and of course he couldn’t write things down. It opened up a whole new way of solving equations to me. It was when I wrote things down that everything went sideways for me. It was a big relief to learn I had the ability and understood what I was doing. I quit at that point (polynomial equations) because I thought it was a good idea to quit when I was ahead. 🙂

  3. I have to admit that I’ve never heard of a slide rule, let alone seen a slide rule, until this post of yours. And, watching the YouTube video made me feel a little anxious, ha! I enjoyed mathematics for the most part, but once I got into college math, my interest in it dissipated, so I no longer did as well as I originally had in high school. However, I did enjoy statistics, and I still enjoy reading a great scientific journal article.

    I love that your dad was a mathematician. I’m in awe of people that excel in mathematics. I wish numbers came easy to me, but they don’t.

    • The way the guy on the video explains the slide rule would only make sense to someone who’s had calculus. It stressed me out, too. But my dad didn’t make sense, either, and all he tried to do was show me how to multiply — and that’s actually pretty easy with the slide rule.

      It’s so strange, but 40 years ago, people used them. 42 years ago, they were gone.

      • It is crazy to think about. I often find myself wishing we could go back in time to the “simpler days”, but things like this don’t seem so simple. Ha! I never did take calculus, so maybe I have an out. 😉

  4. I never got it either, and several people from brilliant boyfriends to professors to my older brother ALL thought it was stupidly simple and couldn’t understand my problem. I’m just a dunce at math.

    • It turned out I have discalcula or whatever it’s called and it wasn’t a big problem until algebra but 3 and B look the same and p and q and b look the same and 4 and F look the same. It was bad. Until then, I’d been able to manage. 😦

  5. Polynomials! That was when arithmetic became ‘new math’ and I was totally lost. I had a very, very old nun teaching math and I can still hear Sr Anna Vincentia say it: “poly-NO-mial. So not my cup of tea.

  6. I loved using slide rules in school. Chemstry and Physics both required them but oddly looked askance at the new electronic calculators that were just coming out.

  7. These look really interesting, but I have never seen or used one. I am pretty curious to see how it would work though.

    I thought abacuses were really cool in Japan too. Young kids can just imagine an abacus, and move their fingers as if they’re doing sums…then they can work out any arithmetic. It’s sooo cool!

      • They had them in banks in Japan when I first got there 20 years later (in 2002) but I didn’t see them so much recently though…

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