Sunday, 7 June 2009

Instruments of development

One of my father's desk drawers held some fascinating instruments, including a slide rule and a micrometer screw gauge. I don't ever recall him using them. He'd been a marine engineer during the war so I suspect he just found it hard to dispose of the tools of his former trade, tools which were likely significant investments when he bought them.


I recall feeling challenged by the sense of fields yet to discover in the precisely engraved scales on the slide rule, even though through my first school years they were a mystery.

Gradually through grammar school I learnt their meaning, how to use them, and acquired my own slide rules. They saw me through university. There I also had access to a hand cranked mechanical calculator and even an early computer, the Elliott 803.

It wasn't until the early 1970s that I first saw a personal calculator, at Eaton's in Winnipeg. As I recall it performed addition, subtraction, multiplication and division and cost over $200. I drooled in a way reserved for genetically programmed early adopters, but did not buy. That waited until 3-4 years later when I acquired an HP-55 scientific calculator with 49 steps programming capability, still in my home today.

In retrospect it seems likely that my father's instruments kept in that drawer were a stimulus for me in developing an interest in science. How much did the detritus of your parent's earlier life influence your life path?

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

My father's "stuff" was more than an inspiration.

My father's McGill blue blazer matched my high school uniform jacket - it only needed the high school crest to cover the McGill martlets.

I used his old calculus book when I needed to catch up on some material not taught in my high school, but expected at McGill.

I used his old wooden slide rule until I finally bought my own aluminum one. My son spent the same dollar amount for his fancy electronic calculator when he took engineering. It not only did many more calculations than my slide rule, but it could even plot graphs.

I rented a mechanical calculator, as big as a typewriter, when we needed one for our four week survey school. One trick with it was to make it play a little tune as it clunked through some calculation.

My generation was probably the last where our fathers' old tools could still be valuable in the university classroom.

Pierce Reid B.Eng 67, MASc 69
(no relation)

John said...

Slide rules and calculators were on the cusp of my graduation from college. I had used the sliderule all through my education up until the last year of University, which was 1970. In that year I purchased a "Bowmar Brain". It was capable of adding, subtracting, multiplying and dividing, and it had a constant key for repetitive calculations. It cost $150 (US). With that and a log table (anybody remember how to use those?) I was able to do any kind of calculation necessary to complete my Bachelor of Science degree. Using it in Physical Chemistry was a real treat, but all of a sudden professors wanted exact answers! What's up with that??