A computer in your pocket…
In this book, Professor Asimov, noted scientist, teacher, and author, introduces the reader to the delights of the slide rule. “A slide rule,” he says, “doesn’t seem as impressive as a giant electronic computer, but it has many advantages. It is small enough to put in your pocket, it need not cost more than a couple of dollars, it can’t go out of order, and, best of all, it can solve almost any numerical problem that you meet up with under ordinary circumstances. To add to all that, it is simple to operate. If you know grade-school arithmetic, you can use a slide rule, even though you may not quite see how it works!”
Oh, but I love this book.
No other book that Asimov has written has been so spectacularly cashiered by the progress of time as has this one. Slide rules are no longer the ubiquitous companion of the scientist and engineer, the vast industry devoted to designing, manufacturing, and maintaining them has vanished. In fact, it’s difficult to even buy new ones anymore. (As of mid-2010, ThinkGeek sells new slide rules, by the way.)
And, of course, it’s rather ironic that the man who predicted the rise of the electronic calculator in “The Feeling of Power” should be caught so flat-footed, as Asimov himself appreciated. At the least the book had a good run: it was published in 1965, with paperback editions in 1967 and 1971. The HP-35 came out in 1972, and inexpensive four-function calculators about a year later.
Now I, as it happens, do own a slide rule. Two of them, in fact, although I’m not entirely sure where the one I inherited from my father is. I even learned how to use them in school, at the beginning of the school year over the course of which calculator prices dropped so substantially that pretty much everybody bought one. I even continued to use them in the years afterwards, such as when my calculator was in the shop for repairs. (Now, of course, I have so many full-scale computers—let alone electronic calculators—that I’m never likely to actually need one as an emergency backup.) As the ultimate badge of geekdom, I even wore one on my belt occasionally in high school.
(I also own an abacus, know how to use it, and do, in fact, use it on rare occasions just for the heck of it; I’ve even been known to do long division in Roman numerals. Someday I need to get a set of counting rods…)
All this is a long-winded way of saying that, as with Quick and Easy Math, I don’t find the book entirely obsolete, because I sometimes like to do things the old-fashioned way.
And the book is well-written, clear, helps one understand how and why slide rules work—by explaining how logarithms work. Of course, Asimov covers logarithms elsewhere in his œuvre, so there’s no need to buy the book for that. You do get a lot more practical experience working with them here, however.
On the other hand, given how badly out-of-date it is, it’s a hoot to read. Just quoting from the introductory section: “We might wish that we ourselves owned such a computer to do the work for us. Such a situation would have its disadvantages, however. Electronic computers are bulky, expensive, complicated, and can be handled only by people with special training.…A slide rule doesn’t seem as impressive as a giant electronic computer, but it has many advantages. It is small enough to put in your pocket, it need not cost more than a couple of dollars, it can’t go out of order, and, best of all, it can solve almost any numerical problem that you meet up with under ordinary circumstances. To add to all that, it is simple to operate…”
The book is worthwhile if for nothing else to evoke a nostalgic fondness for those earlier days. However, from the perspective of an Asimov fan, it has another truly unique feature: Asimov tells you how to make a slide rule—not one for multiplication, mind you, just a simple one for addition so you can get the feel for how a slide rule multiplies by adding. By the time you get to actually using one qua slide rule, he recommends buying one and notes that “some quite decent slide rules can be obtained for not more than a couple of dollars.” (Ironically, many quite nice slide rules are now available on eBay for not more than a couple of dollars.)
And, of course, the fact that I found the copy I own in the science fiction section of the Deseret Book flagship store in downtown Salt Lake City also endears it to me. Granted, booksellers tend to think everything by Asimov is sf and stock shelves accordingly, but, really…