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Slip Sticks Land at MIT

More than 600 historic slide rules have found a new home at the MIT Museum
April 1, 2005

Slide rules excite interest and even passion at the Institute, especially among engineers of a certain age, says MIT Museum science and technology curator Deborah Douglas. Now, thanks to a recent donation of more than 600 historic slide rules by South Hadley, MA–based InteliCoat Technologies, the museum will be able to share the history of this beloved calculating device with a wider audience.

The collection was assembled by Keuffel and Esser of Hoboken, NJ, which was one of the largest manufacturers and distributors of slide rules in the United States from the 1870s until around 1976, when it got out of the business because of the popularity of electronic calculators. The collection, which found its way to ­InteliCoat after a series of mergers and acquisitions, includes rules that Keuffel and Esser made throughout this hundred-year span, as well as competitors’ rules.

MIT Museum curators are particularly excited about the collection because it illustrates how Keuffel and Esser experimented with different designs and styles, and how its clientele changed over the years. In addition to its standard engineer’s rules, the company developed a series of specialty rules. For example, the collection includes a “residential building cost” slide rule that estimates the cost of building a house given its square footage and construction materials. Other treasures include a rare three-sided brass rule made in the late 1800s and a 2.5-meter-long demonstration rule for teachers.

The museum is just starting to document the rules, which it received last summer. Pending funding, Douglas hopes to open an exhibition in about two years. She is sure the collection will attract attention from alumni who still have sentimental attachments to slide rules, and she hopes it will also intrigue the calculator generation. “Almost everything in the modern world was built in some way using one of these,” says Douglas. “Whether it’s a sewer pipe or the space shuttle or a bridge or a radio, they’re all designed by people who used this tool for making general calculations.”

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