Shiny – part 2

A short personal history and view of technology: slide rules to scientific calculators

charade #36 answer

Slide rule - the tool that conquered space

If you’re old enough to remember the 1966 World Cup, then you would probably have been taught how to use a slide rule.

Before the advent of affordable electronic calculators, students were expected to use slide rules for so-called scientific functions – geometric and trigonometric calculations. There were also printed tables available for these functions – sine, cosine, tangents etc. But, slide rules were considered an essential tool.

There is a brilliant scene in the film Apollo 13 when the NASA scientists and engineers are told that the stricken spacecraft is heading back to earth at the wrong angle. They have to calculate the thruster burns required to adjust the craft’s trajectory, making sure that it re-entered the earth’s atmosphere at the correct angle so it didn’t bounce off into outer space or hit it to face on and burn up. Having heard the problem, they all pull out their slide rules and start calculating: matching numbers on one of the scales on the stationery rule, lining that up to a number on one of the scales on the sliding rule that fitted into grooves between the non-moveable rule, then using the plastic slider to read the answer on another scale. Or something like that…

That was the reality in 1970.

My brother, four years ahead at school, was a dab hand with the slide rule and used it all the way into university. I followed suit, but by my late teens calculators with higher functions were coming on the market.

At the time, Texas Instruments was the world leader in calculators producing neat hand held devices with black, grey and yellow buttons. TI may not have been the first to incorporate scientific functions – I think Hewlett Packard may have been – but TI quickly became recognised as the best. And, I seem to recall you paid a lot of money for one of their higher end machines – $400 or more. They also began to produce calculators that performed logic and statistical functions.


Hewlett Packard HP-35 - one of the early scientific calculators: miles better than mine

Of course, when it came time for my dad to shell out for a calculator to help me at university, he opted to buy a cheaper, inferior model – Sharp, I think. It had nowhere near half the functions of a TI, even though I probably wouldn’t even understand how to use the TI now. It came in a vile brown vinyl case. Where TI equalled modernity, my Sharp looked like a Ford Edsel, outdated before it hit the market. Good old dad, trying to meet my craving by choosing what he thought was best and falling a bit short.

A few years earlier in 1975, I had spent $150 of money hard earned gardening for a neighbour in 95 degrees and 95% humidity on a Commodore desktop calculator. It was probably about the size on an iPad. Not only could it do addition, subtraction, multiplication and division, but it had a memory function too!

It was a ridiculous purchase for a 17 year old. I should have spent it at Korvettes or Sam Goody on a dozen or so LPs.

So be it. Now I had the tool to calculate baseball batting averages to my heart’s content. I could even spell out “ShELLOIL”.

Not for the last time, I had overpaid for technology.

Photos from Flickr: charade #36 answer by Andrew Fogg; HP-35 by Daniel Sancho, both used under Creative Commons licences.


One Response to Shiny – part 2

  1. […] shorter. I like lists. So there might be some lists. And, I’ve got an uncompleted series on technology that must be […]

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