The Slide Rule

I admit that I’m old enough to remember learning about slide rules. Well, trying to learn about slide rules. Here’s a very engaging article from NPR about the slide rule. A slide rule is a remarkably simple device at first look, but it is extraordinarily complex. According to the article, the slide rule was important from 1600 to 1972, when the first hand-held calculator arrived on the scene.


This article made me think about technology and our brains. Imagine that for 300 years the slide rule helped engineers with everything from designing buildings and roads to space travel. Then one day–poof–it was replaced.

One of the “difficulties” with the slide rule is that it required the user to think. You needed not only to understand how to use the slide rule, but the math behind it, also.

Today, it seems that thinking is more difficult for us (me?).  It’s easy, and perhaps customary, to “Google” a question as the first step in research. That’s not necessarily bad, but it shouldn’t be the end of the research, either. It’s easy to cut-and-paste items into a research paper or brief, but the deep thinking that ought to be associated with research and writing isn’t required, or perhaps, expected.

As an educator, I’m consistently asking students to put their research “into their own words.” Thinking about what one’s read and integrating the research into a way that can be explained in one’s own voice is very difficult. I wonder what research and writing will look like in the next decade? Will we be satisfied with researched based upon a search-engine-optimized, top of the page web index, or will we re-find the value of deep thinking?

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