Slide Rules

Back in about 1995 I was in the USA and visited a pawn shop in Iowa near the border with Illinois. I think. In the window I spotted what I kind of knew wasn’t a ruler, kind of new was a mechanical calculation device, but didn’t know much else.

I recall my grandfather had one in his desk. Not of much interest to me, but then again I do remember it, and that would be some 40 years ago now.

So, I bought the thing. It was a slide rule, of course. I searched the internet and didn’t find much about them. Since I was relatively new to this interweb thing – I first signed on somewhere in 1992-1993 – and wanting to understand how web pages worked, I started writing about the slide rule.  I created a handcrafted site I called “the Slide Rule Trading Post” – known as SRTP for short.

You can find it on the wayback archive

Over the years that site expanded, and I wrote a couple of Java-based slide rule emulators. The web’s very first one was “JavaSlide” which was online for 4 years or so, until I got a nasty “cease and desist” letter from the fucking idiots protecting the Java trademark. Apparently I was in breach by using the word Java embedded in the name of the thing. I had the option of changing the name, or getting sued. I chose a third option – remove the program completely and, basically, fuck ’em.

This wasn’t the only time I ran foul against intellectual property lawyers. I also had a run-in years later with Atari – for I had registered (and still “own”) the domain – I sold my soul to the devil to keep that one, and much to my enduring disgust I lost a lot of content because of the “take down or else” letters I received. Still a rather bitter feeling, as there are limitations on what I can put on “my” site. So it’s basically “empty” but still “mine”.

I did end up creating another java-based slide rule, which was kind of a configurable build-your-own version.  I mostly got it working, but eventually lost interest. That one was called UniVirtual and I note that it is no longer online. I couldn’t even remember its name, it’s been so long.

Anyway, a long time after SRTP was established, I was manually operating a forum, hand-hacking HTML pages to put visitors’ posts up, and replies, etc. It was becoming a bit unmanageable, so i started using eGroups, a mailing list. That took of rapidly, and before too long there were HUNDREDS of people joined up.  Eventually eGroups was subsumed by Yahoo! and there were a thousand or so members.  I was the head honcho, and ran it with an iron fist. Ha!

As with any group online, there were various issues with people being fuckwits and all that. I generally managed things pretty well, but one day one guy accused me of being “a little Napoleon”. I thought about how to respond to that, not sure of the timing but I think I had banned this person at some stage. I decided the best option was to abdicate and open up the ownership of the list to a popular vote – and so I did that, passing ownership to Michael O’Leary.

The first action of Mike was to permanently ban my accuser, as he had rather less patience for fuckwits than I did.  And so, I faded into the background – so I thought.  But I still kept in touch with the early adopters of the site, and had a few good friends.  I have a few stores there, hopefully I will get to those…

Anyway, rough times come and go, and I had mentioned to one of my slide-rule friends that things were pretty tight. One day he contacted me and said that he was sending me a gift – to look out for a delivery. Well, it came – and bugger me dead – a very large $$$ thank-you from my friends at the slide rule group.  I cannot begin to express how stunned I was to receive such a wonderful gift. It made a huge difference to my partner and I, and I remain eternally grateful.

Some time later, Michael committed suicide. Very sad, and the group also stepped-up to help support his child. Just a really close-knit and great bunch of people.  Except for the occasional fuckwit, of course – the particular one I have in mind is still a member of the group. People change, and I don’t particularly want to hold grudges. We all have our own issues and problems.

I have visited the USA a few times over the years (I live in Oz). A couple of times I’ve visited my slide-rule friends – one in particular I remember well. I was in Texas and took up an offer to visit with a long-time member of the slide-rule group.  He picked me up from the airport in a 70s power car. Don’t remember much about it, but perhaps it was blue. Anyway, the drive was interesting, and we were weaving back and forth and basically just avoiding accidents.

Texas was interesting for someone like me who lives in a society basically without guns. When we went to the flea-market equivalent there were guns everywhere. Kind of scary. I remember a lovely chap named ‘Big John’ – very keen on having his six-shooter on his hip and basically adamant that nobody messes with him. Completely different society and attitude. I didn’t particularly feel like arguing, particularly as an invited guest – but I also felt completely unsafe in such an environment.

So anyway, the lovely gent I stayed with for the weekend advised me in a pretty strong way that I should probably remain in my room for the night, and NOT wander around the house. Basically because of booby-traps and all that. I didn’t want to get shot. Ooooo-kkkkkk, yep I’ll stay in my room.

At the end of the weekend, and a great one it was, my friend showed me why he had the place booby-trapped (and to be honest I kind of believed him – the place seemed like a fortress).  He took me to that small room which had padlocks and electronic locks, and asked me to put on some white gloves. We entered, and he carefully removed a box from a safe. Well, I don’t truly remember if there was a safe, but it was certainly a secured and locked room.  And inside the box was…

A pascaline engine.

Now I don’t know if you know what this is, but I certainly did. There were about 8 of these known to exist. Basically one of the very first mechanical calculators designed by Blaise Pascal in about 1643.

Pascaline Engine

OK, this was an unknown one. #9.  Worth about a million bucks, no kidding.  I spent an hour or so hovering around it, checking it out top to bottom. A very special time indeed.

Eventually I moved on from slide rules. They’re still fascinating, and my interest in slide rules took me on to soviet slide rules which soon took me into the secret world of soviet calculators, cryptography machines, and espionage – transporting soviet technology hidden in cereal packets and carried by scientists from Moscow to Germany.  I eventually got on TV to show my collection.

But that’s another story…



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1 thought on “Slide Rules”

  1. One thing I forgot to mention – the very first slide rule that I purchased at that pawn shop had a name and city on the case. In about 2000 I decided to track down the original owner. After a fair bit of sleuthing, I managed to actually find the owner and called him from Sydney Australia. He was mighty surprised – about 90 years old at the time – to get a call about a slide rule he had pawned in the early ’70s. He didn’t have much recollection about the rule itself, but told me about how he used it at his work. He must have been somewhat amazed that a guy from the other side of the world had made the effort to track down the owner of a slide rule sold some 20 years before to a pawn shop.

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