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26 March 2005

grandma's virtual Java slipstick & see a mob of boffins

Click here and leap merrily backwards, decades, centuries, to a wonderful, innocent time before scientific calculators, four-bangers, or desktop or laptop computers.

But those were by no means computationally weeny times. Most of the number-crunching that got twelve human beings to leap around on the reduced-gravity surface of the Moon was done with one of these gizmos, which trace their invention to the Scottish laird and loony John Napier's discovery of logarithms in 1614.

An Anglican minister, William Oughtred, invented the first gizmo you could call a slide rule in 1622, and European instrument-makers followed by selling all sorts of "Napier's Bones" -- sliding physical versions of log tables, which multiplied (by physical addition) and divided (by physical subtraction) and could also extract square, cube and nth roots, lickety-split.

And lots more. With these gizmos, the Enlightenment instantly acquired its computational punch, and the Industrial Revolution was born. By our lifetimes, a hundred bucks could buy an engineer or physicist or chemist or architect one very dynamite complicated slide rule, which could furp back answers pronto with enough precision to build the Brooklyn Bridge, set an accurate course across any ocean, or send a rocket to Mars (or, unhappily, London).

Einstein worked out the math of Relativity on his Nestler. The Apollo astronauts carried trusty Pickett N600-ES slide rules for backup, in case the power went out on their new-fangled on-board digital computer. And the power went out on Apollo 13.

(The modern home computer -- a computer on a single chip -- traces to a NASA contract for a computer small enough to fly on a spacecraft. The chip, designed in 1969, was the Intel 8008. NASA didn't buy it, but computer hobbyists did, as the brain inside the first kit computers.)

The explosive birth of slide rules was wrapped in a new word, rhabdology -- knowledge acquired from the use of rods or sticks. The Middle Ages were still going strong (Napier's neighbors were convinced he was a dangerous and powerful wizard, and he liked that just fine), and the word was modified from rhabdomancy -- divination, magic and spells using rods or sticks.

Computers are way cool, but for most big, impressive things, largely unecessary; the analog computer known as The Slide Rule could always reliably get you by.

When I was in high school, nerds wore little functional slide-rule necktie clasps. It's not too hard to still find slide rules, but those tie clasps -- they're really extinct. An uncle might buy you one for a birthday gift as a sort of magical wish to guide your future toward science, a little nerd's amulet.

(The high school war between nerds and bullies is really unfair. The bully beats up the nerd, and then ten years later, the nerd vaporizes the bully and the 7500 bullies standing closest to him.)

You think I'm bullshitting you about these slide-rule tie clasps? Well

(1.) I am not bullshitting you, and

(2.) They're Back!!! Want one? Got money?

And slide rules don't need batteries! They always work when you need them!

Anyway, I guessed right -- my dream to write a Java applet for a virtual slide rule is a Web cliché. I think this is a pretty nifty one.

It's astonishing to realize that these devices, which were plenty good enough for the Panama Canal, the Ford Tri-Motor Airplane, the atomic and hydrogen bomb, and the Empire State Building, are no longer manufactured, and are even becoming rare to find at tag sales.

If you've never used or touched or had an algebra class about slide rules, just start by dragging the vertical cursor to the right and left. With a real slide rule, you could squint to about 3 or 4 decimal places of precision; this Java baby very thoughtfully (and ridiculously) displays 16 digits.

Please get very lost clicking around the links in Old Slide Rule World; I find it not just nostalgic, but incredibly seductive and mesmerizing.

And these websites reek with LOVE. Maybe the love of gizmos is silly or tacky or strange or perverted ... but it sure is love. Is it sane to spend $5000 on a tiny speck of sparkly carbon for a human (usually purchased by a male for a female)? Does that make perfect sense to you? So why is it insane to spend $5000 on a slide rule manufactured in Hamburg in 1845? (The carbon speck cannot tell you the fifth root of 9833. But it can scratch windows.)

Particularly impressive and authentically beautiful is The Oughtred Society, "Dedicated to the Preservation and History of Slide Rules and Mechanical Calculators." I can guarantee you a memorable day of remarkable antique gizmos, and a mob of authentic boffins here:

The 11th International Meeting
of Slide Rule and Calculating Machine Collectors
will be held in Cambridge, UK
October 21 and 22, 2005.

Hmmm in fact I think I'm already scheming ... and Cambridge, you bet, is The Perfect Place for it. When you get bored with the ancient slide rules, you can stroll over to Newton's old apartment at Trinity -- Newton's credited with inventing the slide rule's cursor -- or the Cavendish Institute where they worked out the structure of DNA, or ...


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