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Special Collections & University Archives

The Rise and Fall of the Slide Rule: 350 Years of Mathematical Calculators

Exhibition Illustrates the History of the Slide Rule

The Stanford University Libraries, Department of Special Collections, is pleased to announce the exhibition The Rise and Fall of the Slide Rule: 350 Years of Mathematical Calculators. This exhibition illustrates the history of the slide rule, from its use as a tool to calculate logarithms in the seventeenth century, through its demise in the 1960s and 1970s with the invention of the electronic calculator. The Rise and Fall of the Slide Rule will be on view at Stanford University’s Cecil H. Green Library, Peterson Gallery, second floor of the Bing Wing from June 30 through October 9, 2005. The exhibition is free and open to the public.

In the 1620s, William Oughtred (1574–1660), a respected mathematician, set two straight edges side-by-side, forming the first rectilinear slide rule. Oughtred took his cue from the invention of logarithms—a special class of arithmetical functions invented in 1614 by John Napier (1550–1617), a Scottish theologian and mathematician.

The Rise and Fall of the Slide Rule shows that as the Industrial Age developed, the use and popularity of the slide rule gradually increased. By the first half of the last century, the slide rule had become the calculating instrument of choice among thousands of scientists, engineers, technicians and others who routinely made mathematical computations in their daily work.

With the introduction of the electronic pocket calculator in the 1960s, and especially when Hewlett Packard’s HP-35 version hit the market, the slide rule’s 350-year reign as a portable calculating device came to an end.

Within the last fifteen years, however, slide rules have been "rediscovered" and are currently pursued as antiques.

To narrate the history of the slide rule, this exhibition will feature examples of some of the earliest slide rules and calculating devices, such as a wooden Everard-type slide rule created in 1693 and a modern facsimile of Napier’s Bones—a set of calculating rods considered by many to be the world’s first computer. Refinements to slide rule design by manufacturers in France, Germany, Japan, and the U.S. are highlighted, including some examples of circular slide rules and slide rules made of bamboo and other materials. This exhibition also showcases some of the lesser-known applications of the slide rule, as special versions of the tools have been used by British excise officers to assess taxes on alcohol, chefs to resize recipes, the textile industry to calculate cotton cloth production costs, and by racing enthusiasts to calculate the performance of thoroughbreds and greyhounds in races.

The exhibition is curated by Thomas Wyman, Associate of the Stanford University Libraries and president of The Oughtred Society—a group dedicated to the history and preservation of the slide rule and other mechanical calculators, and Robert K. Otnes, engineer specializing in communication theory and editor of the Journal of the Oughtred Society. All objects shown in this exhibition are held within the private collections of the two curators.

LOCATION: Peterson Gallery, Green Library
Bing Wing, Second Floor
Stanford University, Stanford, CA