Monday, March 2, 2009

What a Slide Rule is For

Sam Cooke’s 1960 hit “Wonderful World” opens with the confessional line, “Don’t know much about history,” and leads us to today’s post a couple of stanzas later with the line, “Don’t know what a slide rule is for.”

How very prescient was Mr. Cooke. I think I might have been the last generation to have been taught how to use a slide rule. When pocket calculators swept through the land, these simple instruments of mechanical mathematical calculation, which some boys dashingly (more or less) wore attached to their belts, were left by the wayside and totally forgotten. I have no idea what happened to mine, and I think I’ve forgotten now how to use it anyway.

Mostly forgotten, I should say, as there seems to be a remarkable number of collectors of slide rules out there keeping eBay sellers busy. There are websites for dealers in slide rules.

Above we have Dana Andrews working figures from his slide rule in “I Want You” (1950). Here we have Ruth Roman playfully fingering Van Johnson’s slide rule in “Invitation” (1951). I make no comments about subtext.

Here’s a link to the Foghorn Leghorn vehicle “Little Boy Boo” (1954). When Foghorn attempts to court the Widow Prissy, he must become pals with her intellectual and really quiet son. In one scene, when Foghorn attempts to teach the boy to play hide and seek, little Egghead, Jr. figures out where Foghorn is by using a slide rule.

Tell me where you’ve noticed slide rules in the old movies, or where you think yours might have gone. For now, have a listen below to Sam Cooke.


John Hayes said...

I definitely was not dashing when it came to the slide rule, either as attire or in any other way-- never could get the hang of it-- am sure mine's very long gone at this point. Clever idea for a post-- unusual objects in films.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hi, John. Thanks for stopping by. I can remember in at least a couple of different classrooms a huge slide rule hung on the wall, which I dimly remember was used to demonstrate to us how to use a slide rule. My mind tended to drift away from the lesson (as I'm afraid it almost always did in school), and I was more fixated on the awful possibility that it might fall from its perch above the blackboard and bash the teacher on the head. It added a Hitchcock-like note of suspense to multiplication.

RG said...

They issued us slide rules at the "Academy" I attended and oh how we used them 6 days a week that first year. I still have mine=pack rat! Thanks for the fitting (but not fond) memory.

Jacqueline T Lynch said...

Hurray for another slide rule memory! So glad you popped back RG, and especially glad you still have your slide rule.

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