Slide Rules

When I was a student in those heady days of the late 1960s, my subject was physics. It’s a particular pleasure of mine that many people seem to assume I’m a historian Actually,, the Grammar School I was at when I was 14 deemed I wasn’t clever enough to study history so that ended any formal studies I had in that subject. To be honest, it wasn’t just history they deemed me not clever enough for. Physics was deemed far too complex for the likes of me and so was chemistry.

I suppose I found ways to prove that school wrong. OK, I wasn’t in the top five per cent or anything like that, but I always felt very put down by that school who in nearly every respect failed to inspire me – just as much as I failed to inspire them. I can be very pleased that education has moved on and these days teachers seek to find the way to inspire individuals rather than insisting they must be clones of everyone else.

Anyway, with help from another school – a Comprehensive School – I more or less made it and was able to continue my education after the age of 18 and as I said, I studied sciences which the old Grammar School had denied me.

We scientists were probably all a bit geeky. We seemed to be made to work harder than our colleagues studying artistic subjects and had that bit less time for leisure and pleasure (but in truth we had plenty). We also needed our badge of office and for us that was a slide rule – or guessing stick as we called them. Of course, I still have mine although I have to say it is never used.

But back then, in the 60s, before computers and before electronic calculators, the slide rule was a must have item for we science students.


It already looks just a bit fearsome to many people but really they were little more than aids for multiplication or division. They just seem to have a baffling array of scales and numbers.


The truth is that most of us ignored most of the scales and used just the most straight forward A and B ones. You could actually very easily multiply and divide. There was a certain limit to how accurate you could be but you actually used a slide rule as a check of your own calculations. But most of all you made sure it was visible about your person to mark you out as a boffin who actually knew how to use it.

My slide rule is modern enough to be made of plastic. My dad had a much older one which was wood with (sorry) a layer of ivory for the scales to be marked on. Mine has a plastic case to protect it. His had a leather case.

So times moved on even in the long gone world of slide rules.


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