Technology Forgotten – The Steps of How We Got Here?

I did an interesting experiment over the last week by showing various people one of my sliderules to see what their reaction might be.

I showed a Pickett N-500ES “Hi Log Log Duplex Slide Rule” in its leather case, like this one from a fantastic website.

Pickett N-500ES Hi Log Log Duplex Slide Rule

Pickett N-500ES "Hi Log Log Duplex Slide Rule"

Website link for The Sphere Research Slide Rule Site: http://www.sphere.bc.ca/test/sliderule.html

I had expected that many people wouldn’t remember how to work a Sliderule, but was even more surprised by what responses I actually met with:

  • Most people I met did not recognize the sliderule case at all. Only one fellow who had taught math years ago and another math teacher sliderule hobbyist knew what it was before being uncased.
  • A great number of people were not even able to “name the object” as a sliderule, even when put into their hands.
  • Only about 1 in 25 would have a go at manipulating the sliderule, and only a total of one math lecturer actually knew how to run the sliderule.
  • A few recognized the sliderule as something their father or grandfather had once shown them.
  • Only two said they had their own sliderules, one surprising his wife that he had one squirreled away.
  • Teenagers were either immediately going to ignore the object (and me) or in one case beg a sliderule and manual off of me to have a go at it themselves.

I don’t think I hit 100 people in my very unscientific experiment, but I don’t think I have the heart to leave more people puzzled as to what I would be getting about by continuing the experiment.

For the most part people neither recognize a sliderule nor have any ready skill on how to use one.

This would be like showing a Model-A Car and having it unrecognized as a car, and not finding anyone having the skills to drive it.

The unfamiliarity of technology from the recent past is not limited to calculating devices.

My older two sons tell me that they haven’t met any other teenagers who have built their own stereo amps, much less stereo tube amps.  Each of the boys built a K-502 Stereo Amp kit, and the youngest’s kit is set aside for a build this winter.  Ask them how the tube works, or to even describe the parts inside a tube and it is a mystery even for my boys.

Are we so conditioned to have microprocessors and integrated circuits works as “black boxes” that we are content to not understand the processes they are doing for us?

Or are we ignoring our close-history, including the technological steps that got our technology to its present level?

NPR (National Public Radio) had discussed how they had to change some of the intro themes on various shows, as the “click clack” didn’t mean typewriter & news reporter to many of their listeners, though it once had been a universal response.

Are we becoming “appliance users”  unable to identify or explain how the components in our technology work?  Flight instructors tell of students who have to be shown the basic parts of an engine and who cannot tell you how it works.  Put a transistor into someone’s hand and maybe they will know what it is, just maybe, but they can’t tell you how it works.

Seems sad, but out of this is a wonderful opportunity to relearn the skills of intermediate technology for those of us interested in it.

Taking Apart & Repairing, Building Kits, Doing Study Lessons…. there is a lot of opportunity for enjoyment and deeper knowledge for those who will take it up.

73

Steve
K9ZW

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One thought on “Technology Forgotten – The Steps of How We Got Here?

  1. Akshay Parelkar VA7AAX says:

    Hi,

    I read your post today regarding Slide Rules and people’s reactions.
    I, too have a Slide Rule. It is not a “real” slide rule, in that I
    photocopied the plans to build it from Scientific American.

    I took the Slide Rule to my High School. Of course, as is expected
    from people my age (15-16 yrs), all of them didn’t recognize it and
    some gave me “wide-eyes” when they saw me with. Only 2 teachers knew
    what it was. Both of them were math teachers, and one of the teachers
    knew me very well. But he is the kind of person who could be
    considered in today’s famous derogatory terms, a “geek/nerd”.

    I know what you mean, when you say, that today’s society is,
    ironically, technologically “ignorant”, yet they immerse themselves
    with cell phones and computers, becoming what we would call “appliance
    ops”.
    Today’s people fail to know about this stuff.

    I am also the only ham in my school, including teachers. Most of all
    them don’t know what Ham Radio is. They have simply not heard about
    it.

    One of my favorite “hobby-within-a-hobby” is homebrewing. Even in Ham
    Radio, there aren’t that many people who homebrew.
    In fact, I visit the local electronics components shop so many times,
    that I know the owner very well. Never have I seen a person my age
    there, looking for parts for hobby projects. Most people come there
    either to get parts for their EE project, or technicians looking to
    get replacements.

    It is a grim situation, and there’s not much that can be done the way I see it.

    Thanks for bringing up the subject.

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