Slide Rules of the Rocket Pioneers

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Too often man handles life as he does the bad weather. He whiles away the time as he waits for it to stop.

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Figure 1: Typical Student Slide Rule from the 1960s. Mine was very similar.

Figure 1: Typical student slide rule from the 1960s. Mine was very similar. The minute calculators became available in the 1970s, I bought one – for about $150, which was a lot of money for a high-school kid back then. (Source)

I was watching a interview with Valerie Neal, Curator and Chair National Air and Space Museum, on CSPAN. The interview was focused on the history of rocket development in both the US and Soviet Union. Valerie was asked what was her favorite artifact at the National Air and Space Museum. She responded that she liked artifacts that were the personal items of the pioneers. In the case of space travel, she said that the slide rules of rocket pioneers Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev were her favorite artifacts. Both men used the same type of slide rule. As I looked closely at the slide rules (Figures 2 and 3), I realized they were the same brand – Nestler – as used by some engineers I knew as a boy. My slide rule was a Pickett, similar to that shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2: Slide Rule of von Braun. Figure 3: Slide Rule of Korolev.

Unfortunately, the photos are not high enough resolution to read the specific model numbers of the slide rules in Figures 2 and 3. I have read in this document that von Braun preferred the 9 scale, Nestler 23R slide rule – which was also used by Einstein. Figure 4 shows a more detailed photo of this slide rule.

Figure 4: Detailed Photo of Nestler 23 Slide Rule.

Figure 4: Detailed Photo of Nestler 23 Slide Rule. (Source)

For those who want more background on slide rules, here is an excellent document.




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4 Responses to Slide Rules of the Rocket Pioneers

  1. Tim Hughes says:

    Although not an engineer my father used to use a very basic german Faber Castell slide rule that I borrowed and learned to use in high school. When I went to college and studied engineering, I got a specialized electronics slide rule that could handle complex numbers, and had some specialized impedance scales. The slide rule was twice as accurate as a normal one of the same length, as it had a "folded scale" so that it effectively was twice as long as the physical length. The great thing about a slide rule is it teaches you to do order of magnitude calculations in your head, so as to keep track of decimal points. Order of magnitude estimation is still a handy skill in engineering today, when in a meeting or thinking about problems away from your computer.

    • mathscinotes says:

      The complex number slide rule sounds very interesting and I am going to research that one. I did use one odd-ball, folded, slide rule in college called a Spirule. We used it for generating root-locus plots.

  2. Patrick Boyle says:

    All this changed in my lifetime. When I was in high school (1956-1960) I always had a slide rule. I think my sophomore year I took slide rule as a required subject. Every guy in school - it was Catholic military high school so they were all guys - had a Pickett slide rule, except me. I preferred a circular slide rule and would use no other. I can't remember just why.

    But in college and grad school when I took statistics the first time we used the electrical-mechanical Monroe Calculator. We were all herded one day in to the Calculator Room - a whole classroom dedicated to undergraduate students for their one day a semester when they could touch the machines. The high point of first year stat was when they got to go into the Calculator room and calculate a single standard deviation.

    By grad school had a personal electronic calculator - a Bomar Brain I think. I bought a new model as more features became available. I had at least six or seven different brands.

    In grad school I was a TA. I taught stat in the business school. I also taught keypunch. They too had to calculate a single standard deviation. But by now there were computers - the university batch processing IBM mainframe. I would teach them how to make up a card deck. One card for each data point. They would put their deck in the input slot and get back the result the next day. Actually it usually took several days because they would make formatting errors and keypunch errors.

    Then I ended up teaching statistics after grad school. I chose the cheapest possible text book so the students could afford to buy their own statistical calculator. I taught stat for five years so the calculators added more and more functions each year and the prices went down. Eventually I realized that the little inexpensive pocket calculator could do more advanced calculations than I knew.

    I (and all of Western Civilization) then moved from calculators to computers. In my case I got a government job that was stat oriented. My civil service classification came with a 'Scientific Calculator' for my use. The guy in personnel figured that was about $700 because my predecessor had had a top of the line HP calculator - the kind that read little magnetic strips. I told him I wanted a different model called the Commodore PET. And that's how I got into computers.

    I was doing a regression analysis of government job programs so I went to the library and got a book on BASIC and another on stepwise multiple regression.

    Slide rule - pocket calculator - personal computer. So it goes.

  3. george hovey says:

    My first "slipstick" (I never called it that - it seemed disrespectful), a Keufel and Esser
    Log Log Duplex Vector whose special trick was hyperbolic functions used by electrical engineers (but I never found out what problems they solved). I used it from high school through college.
    I think manual calculating aids had been around for a couple of centuries, and it gave me a twinge when they disappeared, relatively speaking, in a blink.
    Now I get dewy eyed over the IBM 650, 1620, 360, 1800 DEC PDP11, PDP10. That's when men and women were men and women!

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