From slide rule to calculator app to…ChatGPT?

On a shelf in the Badger’s home office is a pristine British Thornton slide rule in its original case. It hasn’t been used in years. In fact, it’s hardly been used since the Badger bought it during his first week as a university student because it was a recommended tool for his subject. Various friends have poked fun at it over the years, jauntily calling it – and the Badger – a relic rendered obsolete by first electronic calculators, and latterly apps on smartphones. Nevertheless, a friend recently gifted the Badger a vintage slide rule instruction pamphlet to ‘complement this Museum piece’! The gift was accepted graciously. It heightened awareness not only that anyone born since the 1970s will never have used a slide rule, but also that the student Badger had actually hastened this tool’s demise by buying a pocket electronic calculator as soon as they became widely available and affordable.

The slide rule’s 300-year reign as a personal calculating tool ended abruptly in the mid-1970s. By the time the Badger had completed his degree, every student on his course had bought a Sinclair Cambridge, Sinclair Scientific, or Texas Instruments electronic calculator. When youngsters josh about the slide rule on his shelf, the Badger reminds them that Buzz Aldrin used one during the Apollo 11 moon mission, and scientists and engineers used them when designing, building, and manufacturing the first computers. They are often amazed, but always respond by highlighting the virtues of the calculator app on their smartphone.

Reading the vintage slide rule pamphlet reminded the Badger that his purchase of an electronic calculator as an undergraduate was an early part of the microelectronics revolution that’s changed every aspect of life since. Reflecting today, it seems amazing that personal calculating devices have morphed from a tactile, non-electronic slide rule into a calculator app on a smartphone reliant on microelectronics to function. Of course, what’s happened to personal calculation devices is merely a specific example of the massive impact that rapid technological advance has on our lives.

Today the Badger’s slide rule is a decorative bygone. His most recent electronic pocket calculator is also infrequently used and languishes in the desk draw because the calculator app on his smartphone has become his default pocket calculator. But even use of this app is waning! Why? Because just speaking to Google or Alexa does straightforward maths. The days of needing a calculator app thus seem numbered, especially if AI like ChatGPT ultimately has the impact that Microsoft anticipates. So, here’s a thought to end with. While the Badger’s slide rule will always be an antique talking point sitting on someone’s shelf, an obsolete calculator app will just disappear into the ether and have no decorative value whatsoever. Hmm, perhaps the Badger needs to stop reading the instruction pamphlet and drink less coffee…

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