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Today's Hip Technology Could Become Tomorrow's Slide Rule

At EducationWorld, we're pretty obsessed with the latest edtech. With the pace of technology today, the thought that our most well loved apps will disappear one day is not shocking. The manner in which the slide rule was erased from American classroom, however, was--to say the least--abrupt.

It was a treat to listen to NPR All Things Considered host Robert Siegel look back at the slide rule this week.

In 1972 Hewlett-Packard came out with the first handheld electronic calculator. Practically overnight, the slide rule had become obsolete.

"The death of the slide rule was pretty instantaneous," says Bob De Cesaris, who oversees chip manufacturing at Intel and has one of the largest collections of slide rules in the country. De Cesaris estimates his collection has nearly 4,000 slide rules.

Siegel and Deborah Douglas, the director of collections and curator of science and technology at the MIT Museum in Cambridge, Mass., went out of their way to make the slide rule "sound" for their listeners by sliding the metal pieces back and forth. They shared (for the sake of younger listeners) that the soft scraping noise was familiar to not only K-12 students but college students up until the '70s. Listen to the story to hear the sound for yourself.

"The slide rule is an instrument that was used to design virtually everything," Douglas said to Siegel. Engineers calculated "the size of a sewer pipe, the weight-bearing ability of a cardboard box, even rocket ships and cars."

The MIT Museum had a three-year exhibit on slide rules and plans another one for next year. They'll certainly have a pool of interested visitors since there's a society for slide rule enthusiasts and even some teachers are committed to bringing the slide rule back to classrooms.

Jim Hus still remembers deciding to invest $400 in a calculator and abandoning his slide rule during his freshman year at Purdue, back in 1974.

But it's a device he'll never forget and he hopes his students at Highland High School in Indiana won't either. He's planning to have his students build a classroom slide rule.

"I joke it will be the largest slide rule in the world," he says, laughing. "But this way, I'm not just handing the students a tool, we're learning how it operates so we can access higher math concepts."

Listen to the story.

Corrie Kerr, EducationWorld Editor


Do you miss slide rules? Share your experiences with using slide rules in your classroom below.

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