Math in Computing

Mechanical and Electronic Calculating Devices

What is a slide rule?

The slide rule is a ruler-like device with logarithmic scales that allows the user to do mathematical calculations. It is portable, with the most common slide rules using three interlocking calibrated strips; the central strip can be moved back and forth relative to the other two. Calculations are performed by aligning marks on the central strip with marks on the fixed strips, then reading marks on the strips. There is also a “see through” sliding cursor with a hairline mark perpendicular to the scales, allowing the user to line up numbers on all the scales.

Sadly for mathematical traditionalists, the use of the slide rule was eventually overtaken by the pocket calculator by the mid-1970s. But in other ways, this development was welcome. The slide rule had two major drawbacks, especially for calculations in mathematics, engineering, and the sciences: It was not easy to add with the device and it was only accurate to three digits.


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