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Sunday, October 15, 2006

Lost arts -- slide rules and cursive writing

Now that a whole generation has grown up with personal computers at their disposal, many once-necessary skills have become lost arts. For example, I did most of my college computing with a slide rule, and when I reported to work as summer engineer in 1974, General Mills provided me with a circular one. The University of Minnesota had one Wang calculator that students waited in line to use for doing logarithms to more decimals than possible with a slide rule. General Mills bought one Hewlitt-Packard calculator that did logs and exponential calculations using reverse Polish notation. It was so costly that they bolted it to a table! Nowadays slide rules have become an item for collectors such as fellow U of M alumnus Gary Flom. Aficionados of slide rules formed the Oughtred Society name after William Oughtred, an Anglican minister who invented this calculating device in 1622. My father, an engineer like me, owned a really nice Keuffel and Esser (K&E) slide rule. However, from my quick browsing of the internet, it seems that these go for only about $25 -- far less than what one would have paid originally if adjusted to inflation. As reported in The Death of the Slide Rule by James Redin, the K&E manufactured its last slide rule in 1975 -- the year I achieved my bachelor's degree in chemical engineering.

PS. Another lost art, reported in my Sunday newspaper today by Washington Post writer Margaret Webb Pressler,* is cursive (longhand) writing. She reports that 85 percent of almost 1.5 million students taking their college SAT exams wrote in block letters. Computers have made this style of penmanship obsolete.

*The Handwriting Is on the Wall


  • At 12:47 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said…

    It's interesting that the HP 15C (which has been discontinued for years)is so beloved by engineers that they go for $200-300 on ebay. That's more than they cost new.

    I have one and wouldn't trade it for anything.


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