The Slide Rule and Essendon’s Fate

Filed in Archive, Blog by on September 19, 2014 4 Comments

Slide Rule 4

The slide rule deserves no sympathy. It bamboozled a generation of children who had already mastered arithmetic on paper. Thankfully, the calculator saved most of us.

The arrival of the calculator in the 1970s was a by-product of NASA’s race to the moon. So if anyone argues that putting people on the moon was not a worthy mission, let them use slide rules. Then stand back and laugh. Plenty of teachers used to.

Looking at the above picture now actually makes me feel a little sick at the memory of trying to master these contraptions. How to make sense of all those calibrations, digits and symbols as the centre of the ruler slides through the outer brackets? Even though I went on to do maths at university, I struggled with this compulsory instrument in secondary-school maths.

When I bought my first calculator in 1974, the RRP was $100. A sales tax exemption for a Year 8 (Form 2) student brought it down to about $60. Keep in mind that in 1974 petrol cost about 13 cents per litre (and this was considered a crisis). Yet despite the calculator’s high price tag, I would have paid much more to escape the tyranny of the slide rule.

As if trapped in some bizarre Monty Python sketch, my school promptly banned calculators, saying it was “cheating”. Not just in exams but also in class. This evil technology was making it too easy for kids to solve maths problems. They might even enjoy the process. Can’t have that.

I wonder if those surviving staff still rely on the slide rule to calculate their daily expenses? A perfect little accessory for the supermarket if their fingers can still move the slider around.

Which leads to my real point. When someone discovers a better way to achieve a result with new technology, what criteria determine whether it is cheating?

Calculators gave humankind more powerful tools to solve complex mathematical problems. Graphics calculators opened up even more possibilities. That’s not cheating, that’s progress. There are no undesirable health effects on the users (all nerd jokes aside). Calculators have aided the development of technologies that can benefit everyone. If you don’t agree, then throw away your computer and smartphone now.

But when illegal performance-enhancing drugs are used by sports people, the substances can have serious medical side-effects. Sport becomes a pharmaceutical race to the bottom where a freak show awaits. Beginning with bearded girls and featuring alleged men with muscle tissue grown from the DNA of cheetahs.

Does this benefit humankind in general? Perhaps some people would prefer to watch a freak show for a while, but I’ll go out on a limb and say the vast majority would prefer sport based on talent, training and strategy, not industrial chemistry.

Of course, there is also the argument that sports people pledge to abide by a code of conduct before they compete. Anyone who breaks the code deserves the consequences.

Which is why I applaud Justice John Middleton’s ruling, about 90 minutes ago, that ASADA’s anti-doping investigation into Essendon Football Club was legal.

Yet my sympathies are with the 34 players who will now have to argue why they shouldn’t be banned from playing for two years. If I were in their shoes, I would plead I was only following orders.

And you don’t have to know how to use a slide rule to figure out who the players and their parents will point their fingers at …


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  1. While I don’t profess to understand the local doping scene in Australia, I do profess to understand something about slide rules. Maybe things are different in Australia than the United States. I was born in 1944, making me 70 years of age. I went through high school and college just fine without using a slide rule, with the exception of a class in physics in my senior year of college, but I barely used it, and I certainly didn’t inhale it. I have a BS and MS in Mathematics and a Ph.D. in Computer Science and went on to be a university professor.

    I mastered arithmetic on paper. And that’s the point. A slide rule is for doing arithmetic and not math. Are you telling me that Australian high school students were expected to do computations on a slide rule? We certainly didn’t do that here in the USA.

    Now, as to the issue of the use of calculators in class and exams. I can understand that in a situation where the subject matter that is being tested can be computed by pressing one function button on a calculator it makes the asking of the question moot. How is one to test mastery of a concept when the student has the answer machine in his hand and can show only mastery of pressing a button?

    • Euan Mitchell says:

      Hi Dr Sliderule

      Nice to hear your experience in the USA was not as draconian as in Oz. Yes, Australian school kids were expected to do all sorts of computations on slide rules.

      Fortunately, things changed after the initial few years of reaction to calculators. By the time I got to study pure maths at university you could bring a calculator to the exams. This was because calculators were of no use in solving the types of complex problems we were examined on.

      Moving on to recent times, exams for the final years of high school have sections which are devoted to answering questions with graphics calculators.

      But that wasn’t really the point of my blog. It was more of a philosophical question about how humans assess whether new technology is “cheating” or not.

      • Dr.Sliderule says:

        Sorry to have taken so long to respond. I guess I am not on the automatically get a copy of the reply list.
        I have no problem with you using the incident with the slide rules as an introduction to your “point” about cheating. I was merely commenting on a narrow subject that you included in your post. I did go so far as to point out the obvious, that you can’t “cheat” by having a magic answer machine, because then you are not testing competence. Whether aids are permitted or banned for school should be judged on the merits of the individual situation. I think it would be difficult to come up with guidelines that would work in all situations. But, isn’t that what we have teachers for, to make the rules so that we do learn. In your case, obviously, the use or banning of devices did no good, you never did learn how to use the simple device, for if you had you would not have been complaining about it.
        The issue with athletes “cheating” is another matter entirely. As a nerd, I stay away from athletic events entirely.

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