Join us on         

“Slip-sticks” Once Ruled the Math/Science World (and did One go to the Moon?)

Their formal names were slide rules, and folks called them “slip-sticks.” They were literally analog computers. Many years ago, slide rules were de rigeur for engineers and scientists, and especially several generations of high school and college students.

Not only that, but Neil Armstrong used one, according to a recent Wall Street Journal blog.

So as our scholars go back to school with their $1,500 laptops -- a far cry from the five-to-maybe-ten bucks a basic “slip-stick” costs – and as a grateful nation mourns the recent death of Armstrong, the humble “slip-stick” offers us a lesson in how science marches on. And how long and deliberate a trip it has been.

To prove this, it might be good to take a look at the technology, for it is centuries old. The history of the slide rule begins in the early 1600s. An English mathematician, William Oughtred, is credited with inventing it in 1622. He was taking his cue from the inventions around that same time of two important developments in science: John Napier’s invention of logarithms and Edmund Gunter’s creation of logarithmic scales. The first half of the 17th Century was apparently an unusually creative time, for that’s when this all happened.

Naturally, science moved forward with the new technology. Just as books proliferated after Gutenberg’s invention of moveable type, mathematicians and scientists embellished the slide rule over the centuries, discovering a multitude of new uses for it – everything from just making math easier to building bridges.

So as schools reconvene, remember that those billions of bytes of transactions that will be cranking through millions of computers nationwide were not just recent inventions. It’s just that the slide rule grew up.

Article by Dougald Blue, Contributing Writer

Want to know more about how slide rules work? Check out this You Tube video:

Discover more stories like this at Science Matters and LIKE us on Facebook.