This was originally published on Pessimists Archive.
This article – written in 1984 – discusses the decline in popularity of the slide rule and its replacement by electronic calculators and computers.
The article highlights the sentiment of regret among some teachers, technicians, and scientists at the slide rule’s decline, as it was once a widely used tool for mathematical calculations.
However, from a modern day perspective, it is clear that the slide rule has become almost entirely obsolete. Electronic calculators and computers are much faster and more advanced, and are able to perform a wider range of calculations. The idea that the slide rule is necessary for teaching mathematical concepts or maintaining a sense of intuition in problem solving is also outdated, as there are now many other tools and resources available for these purposes.
Quoting John Strack, a physics teacher at Arlington, the article notes that “You can program a computer to perform a certain task, then you can train anybody to punch numbers into it. But if you don’t teach him the concepts, how will he learn to program the computer himself?” While this may have been a valid concern in the past, it is no longer relevant in modern times. With the widespread availability of computers and the internet, there are now numerous resources and educational materials available for learning about programming and other technical concepts.
Additionally, the article mentions that “Many professionals do not find the slide rule as slow as Strack’s students do, however.” However, even if some professionals still find the slide rule to be a useful tool, it is undeniable that electronic calculators and computers are generally much faster and more efficient. The quote from Bruce Campbell, a mathematician and computer scientist, that “For instance, if you punch numbers into a calculator or a computer, you rely on the device to keep track of the magnitude of the problem, and you can lose the sense of it, But on a slide rule, you’re constantly aware of the magnitude because you’re moving the numbers around. It’s a physical process,” may have been true in the past, but it is no longer relevant in the age of advanced electronic calculators and computers.
Overall, it is clear that the slide rule has been largely replaced by more advanced technologies and is no longer a practical or necessary tool in modern times.