Slide Rules of the Rocket Pioneers

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Too often man handles life as he does the bad weather. He whiles away the time as he waits for it to stop.

Alfred Polgar

Figure 1: Typical Student Slide Rule from the 1960s. Mine was very similar.

Figure 1: Typical student slide rule from the 1960s. Mine was very similar. The minute calculators became available in the 1970s, I bought one – for about $150, which was a lot of money for a high-school kid back then. (Source)

I was watching a interview with Valerie Neal, Curator and Chair National Air and Space Museum, on CSPAN. The interview was focused on the history of rocket development in both the US and Soviet Union. Valerie was asked what was her favorite artifact at the National Air and Space Museum. She responded that she liked artifacts that were the personal items of the pioneers. In the case of space travel, she said that the slide rules of rocket pioneers Wernher von Braun and Sergei Korolev were her favorite artifacts. Both men used the same type of slide rule. As I looked closely at the slide rules (Figures 2 and 3), I realized they were the same brand – Nestler – as used by some engineers I knew as a boy. My slide rule was a Pickett, similar to that shown in Figure 1.

Figure 2: Slide Rule of von Braun. Figure 3: Slide Rule of Korolev.

Unfortunately, the photos are not high enough resolution to read the specific model numbers of the slide rules in Figures 2 and 3. I have read in this document that von Braun preferred the 9 scale, Nestler 23R slide rule – which was also used by Einstein. Figure 4 shows a more detailed photo of this slide rule.

Figure 4: Detailed Photo of Nestler 23 Slide Rule.

Figure 4: Detailed Photo of Nestler 23 Slide Rule. (Source)

For those who want more background on slide rules, here is an excellent document.




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2 Responses to Slide Rules of the Rocket Pioneers

  1. Tim Hughes says:

    Although not an engineer my father used to use a very basic german Faber Castell slide rule that I borrowed and learned to use in high school. When I went to college and studied engineering, I got a specialized electronics slide rule that could handle complex numbers, and had some specialized impedance scales. The slide rule was twice as accurate as a normal one of the same length, as it had a "folded scale" so that it effectively was twice as long as the physical length. The great thing about a slide rule is it teaches you to do order of magnitude calculations in your head, so as to keep track of decimal points. Order of magnitude estimation is still a handy skill in engineering today, when in a meeting or thinking about problems away from your computer.

    • mathscinotes says:

      The complex number slide rule sounds very interesting and I am going to research that one. I did use one odd-ball, folded, slide rule in college called a Spirule. We used it for generating root-locus plots.


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