Slide RulesLinear Slide Rules
Between 1614 and 1622, John Napier discovered logarithms, Edmund Gunter devised a scale on which numerals could be multiplied and divided by measuring the distance between two logarithmic numbers with a pair of dividers, and William Oughtred put two such scales alongside each other, moving one on a slide so that the distance between the numbers could be read off directly. The speed with which these developments unfolded suggests the power that logarithms provided for reducing the tedium of calculation. By the 1680s, the English used slide rules in carpentry and in gauging (estimating liquid volumes)—the instruments were quite helpful for determining excise taxes on barrels of liquor.
It was not until the late eighteenth century that slide rules were commonly utilized in the manufacture of machines and machine tools, most notably by James Boulton and James Watt. Several more decades passed before slide rule use became widespread throughout Europe. French artillery officer Amedée Mannheim fostered acceptance of the rectangular or linear form of the instrument in 1851 by standardizing the general types of scales and the order in which the scales were arranged. Mannheim also developed the cursor or indicator, which made it easier to read results from two scales that were not adjacent to each other. By the 1870s, German companies made slide rules one of the first consumer products to be fashioned out of plastic (specifically, sheets of celluloid laminated to a wooden frame), and they built dividing engines that permitted mass production of the scales engraved on slide rules. In the United States in the 1890s, Keuffel & Esser of New York City pioneered first the import and then the domestic manufacture of linear slide rules. Numerous other companies entered the market in the 20th century.
A quick tour of what you can expect to see on a slide rule starts with the C and D scales, which both represent the standard number line. To multiply two numbers, set the 1 on the C scale above the first number to be multiplied on the D scale. Look at the second number to be multiplied on the C scale; the number below it on the D scale is the answer. For example, to multiply 2 by 3, set 1 on C over 2 on D, and then look below 3 on C to see the answer 6 on D. Division is accomplished by reversing the process. To calculate 6 ÷ 3, set 3 on C over 6 on D, then look at 1 on C to see the answer 2 on D. To deal with numbers larger than 10 or smaller than 1, the user must mentally move the decimal point. Slide rule users also had to be able to estimate distances between marks on the scales, since there was no way to include all of the digits needed to solve a problem such as 3.14 X 2.7. (On linear and circular slide rules, the answer is "approximately 8.48." Web sites on the Resources page provide more detailed training in using slide rules.)
|Instructions for multiplying two numbers on a slide rule. Eugene Dietzgen Co., Self-teaching Instruction Manual [for] Maniphase Slide Rule (Chicago, [1950s]), 4. NMAH Mathematics Collection, cat. no. 1988.0367.02. AHB2013q009216|
The basic process for setting up and solving problems is the same for operations on other scales. If the numbers used in the calculation produce a result off the ends of the scales, a user employs the CI and DI scales, which put the number line in inverse, or reverse, order. If the numbers still extend past the end of the instrument, the user may try the "folded" CF and DF scales, which start numbering at π instead of at 1. The A and B scales are number lines of squares, so they are used with the C or D scales to square (or take the square root of) a number. The K scale provides cubes and cube roots. L scales represent common logarithms, S scales give sines and cosines, and T scales indicate tangents.
"Slide Rules - Linear Slide Rules" showing 1 items.
- This wooden ten-inch Mannheim slide rule is faced with white celluloid. The top edge is beveled and has a scale of inches divided to sixteenths of an inch. The bottom edge is flat and has a scale of centimeters divided to millimeters. The base has A and D scales, with B and C scales on one side of the slide and S, L, and T scales on the other side of the slide. The L scale is not lettered. The base underneath the slide is marked: EUGENE DIETZGEN CO. CHICAGO–NEW YORK (/) W. F. M. It is also marked: PAT. JUNE 28 1898. The indicator is glass in a metal frame. A paper glued to the back of the rule gives the properties of various substances and equivalents of various weights and measures. Carved into the back is: W.F.M. 1907.
- The base of the rule is cut lengthwise into two sections that are joined together by invisible springs. This was intended to create more uniform resistance to the motion of the rule (even if it is fully extended) and to make it possible to straighten the parts of the rule by scraping, should it become warped. A cardboard box covered with burgundy leather is marked: The Mack Improved Slide Rule (/) NO. 1765 (/) EUGENE DIETZGEN CO. (/) CHICAGO. NEW YORK.
- This rule is named for John Givan Davis Mack (1867–1924), an early member of the engineering faculty at the University of Wisconsin who taught from 1893 to 1915. On June 28, 1898, he received U.S. Patent 606388 for dividing the base of a slide rule and rejoining the pieces with springs. He assigned the patent to the Eugene Dietzgen Company of Chicago, which first sold a slide rule built on Mack's patent in 1898 and offered this version from 1902 to 1912 for $4.50.
- The carved initials are those of the owner, the spectroscopist William F. Meggers (1888–1966), who was long associated with the U.S. National Bureau of Standards. He received his B.A. in physics from Ripon College in 1910, his M.A. in physics from the University of Wisconsin in 1916, and his Ph.D. in physics, mathematics, and astronomy from Johns Hopkins University in 1917. It seems likely that he acquired this rule as a student. For a less precise slide rule associated with Meggers, see MA*293320.2820. For later slide rule instructions distributed by Dietzgen, see 1981.0933.07.
- References: Catalogue & Price List of Eugene Dietzgen Co., 7th ed. (Chicago, 1904), 171; Rodger Shepherd, "Some Distinctive Features of Dietzgen Slide Rules," Journal of the Oughtred Society 5, no. 2 (1996): 42–45; Peter M. Hopp, Slide Rules: Their History, Models, and Makers (Mendham, N.J.: Astragal Press, 1999), 159–160, 276; J. G. D. Mack Papers, University of Wisconsin Archives: U. S. Patent 606388.
- Currently not on view
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- Eugene Dietzgen Company
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- National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center