Math, Slide Rules and Me

I’ve had a strange relationship with Math.

In my earliest years, we did addition and subtraction, and I performed about as well as the other kids in my class. Then, in 4th grade, we encountered division, and learned the multiplication tables.

Well, the other kids did. I was out sick that winter for a two-week period and, when I returned, everyone in the class suddenly knew that 6 times 7 was 42. I couldn’t figure out how this happened and, because I didn’t like to draw attention to myself, I never asked. I was also very skilled at remaining invisible in class, so I was never called on and asked any embarrassing questions that might have alerted the teacher that I knew sod-all about multiplying.

In my early school years (from 1960 to 1965) we sat in desks like this. The hole in the upper corner was for an ink-well.

I ended that year with a grade of 70. Passing was 75. It was the first subject I ever failed.

Fifth grade saw me that much further behind, but my teacher, Miss Steinhelper, must have noticed something was amiss because she gave me a book on geometry. It was a kid-friendly book, no one else had it, and it immediately gripped me. Multiplication remained a mystery, but points, lines and planes, and their relationships to each other, fascinated me. And it all made perfect sense. Eventually, I learned that multiplication tables were simply a matter of memorization and, as I had a good memory, that deficit was soon eradicated. I ended that year with a math grade of 95.

In later years, we had desks like this. Just a flat top and a shelf for your stuff.

From then on, math became a subject that was as easy, and as natural, as breathing. Numbers made so much more sense than letters. (I was a horrible speller.) Any word, it seemed, could be logically spelled in any number of ways, but only one was right, or write, or rite, or wright. Numerals, however, were comfortingly logical. There was only a single answer to a mathematical equation, and finding it was a breeze.

That doesn’t mean my marks went to the top of the charts, because one of my other problems was that I was bone-lazy. Math came easy to me, but only when I bothered to do the work.

Still, I did enough work to get good marks, if not great ones, and when I entered high school, I became something of a math geek, which meant that I had a slide rule. Actually, I had several; one was about a foot long, which I used for more detailed calculations, the other, for general use, could fit in my shirt pocket. The really cool kids (cool in a math-geek sort of way) had slide rules so long they came in leather scabbards that they hung from their belts like sabres.

A thing of beauty.

These were the best high-precision calculators of the day, and I was never without one.

Math continued to come so easily to me that I found it surprising that others struggled with it, to the point where they even had to study for tests.

In my senior year, we were introduced to college-level calculus and analytic geometry and I found it so simple it was almost boring, which became something of a problem. After a major exam, before the marks came out, I was called into the teacher’s office. He sat me down and very seriously asked me if I had cheated on the exam. I was incredulous, and told him that, of course I hadn’t. Then he told me I’d received a perfect score; the only person in the school to do so. And that meant he couldn’t grade on a curve.

In high school, the desks looked like this. Just a seat with a writing surface. Sucked if you were left-handed.

So simple was math to me that, when I enrolled in Columbia Greene Community College, I took an advanced algebra course as an easy credit. Unfortunately, my bone-laziness followed me along with my idiot-savant arithmetic skills. I aced the class, finding f of x — f(x) — with no difficulty. The only problem was, the class started at 8am and I didn’t feel like getting up that early. So, I calculated my exam results and found that, if I averaged them with the low marks I expected by not going to classes, I’d still pass. What I failed to figure in, however, was that it was a three-cut class. So I got an “Incomplete” when I should have—if I had found the will to get up in the morning—gotten an A.

Then I dropped out of college and left my slide rule days behind.

Over the years, I noticed that electronic calculators were becoming more and more common. The first one I encountered was the size of a dictionary, and it cost fifty dollars. I didn’t buy it, of course. Soon, however, they were so cheap they were giving them away, and calculator apps became a standard part of computer operating systems. Within ten years of leaving school, slide rules were consigned to the dustbin of history. A rather ignoble end for a worthy device that had been around for over three hundred and fifty years. (The abacus, in contrast, is over four thousand years old, and still going strong.)

Several years ago, having succumbed to the lure of nostalgia, I tried to buy a slide rule and discovered you can’t. They no longer exist. When I looked up Slide Rule on Amazon I found the following:

  • Tape Measures
  • Calipers
  • A Blundell-Harling Speed, Time & Distance Calculator
  • Paper Cutters
  • A book on how to prepare presentation slides in Microsoft PowerPoint
  • and, of course, an Abacus

…but no slide rules.

I did manage to find one on eBay, however. A nice, foot-long one in a hard-shell case.

It satisfied my nostalgic craving, but it hasn’t done me any good. I don’t remember how to use one, and I can’t imagine it’s going to impress my grandchildren if I ever get the chance to show it to them.

It’s like looking through my old college notebooks and seeing algebraic equations, in my own handwriting, and realizing I can’t even understand the question anymore, much less find the answer.

Still, I keep it on my desk, to remind me of a simpler time, and console myself with the knowledge that, throughout my long working career, no one ever asked me to solve for f(x).