Many years ago in senior school, we were taught how to use log tables. These were well thumbed books that contained columns of numbers in fine print and by looking up values on a table we could reduce complicated maths to simple addition. Logarithmic tables were first proposed by John Napier in 1614 so they had been around a while, on the other hand pocket calculators hadn’t yet been invented.
Some of the more ambitious students learnt how to use slide rules (slipsticks in the USA). These were a mathematical device that reduced complicated calculations to simple actions that anyone could do – if they knew how. Slide rules were invented not very long after log tables, so they have been around a while too. Despite their age they weren’t as antiquated as you might think. If you have seen the film Apollo 13 you may have noticed slide rules being used in Mission Control as they worked out what to do next after the explosion on the space craft. Old they may be, yet slide rules were still good enough to send a man into space.
Given my mathematical background it is little wonder that I was amazed to read sometime in the early 1970s about pocket calculators. They were small and very, very expensive – around $3,000 or more by today’s standards. So imagine my amusement recently to see a modern 240 function scientific calculator on sale in my local store for just £2.99. It made me smile to think of how these things have come down in price and increased in capability. I didn’t need a calculator at the time, like most people I’ve got one in my pocket should I feel the urge to do some maths. I just bought it for fun – and to take a photograph or two.
Should you ever need to land a space craft try turning your iPhone on its side while using the calculator function and you’ll find it becomes a scientific calculator!