Did You Know?: Astronaut slide rules

January 28, 2011

Purdue Libraries Archives and Special Collections is home to personal slide rules from six Purdue astronaut alumni. (Purdue University photo/Mark Simons)

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Before they set off into space, experienced zero gravity or walked on the moon, astronauts like Neil Armstrong and Eugene Cernan were Purdue students using slide rules for their engineering, mathematics and statistics courses.

Purdue Libraries Archives and Special Collections is home to personal slide rules from six Purdue astronaut alumni. From 2004 to 2009, these calculation instruments from Neil Armstrong, Jerry Ross, Roy Bridges, Eugene Cernan, Richard Covey and Guy Gardner were part of a larger slide rule display in A.A. Potter Engineering Center.

Used for multiplying, dividing, and finding roots and logarithms, slide rules became largely obsolete when electronic calculators were introduced in the 1970s. But in 1987, James Alleman, professor of civil engineering at Purdue until 2005, began collecting alumni slide rules to celebrate the centennial of civil engineering at the University.

When the wall display was taken down, these six slide rules were hand-wrapped in tissue paper and transferred to a temperature- and humidity-controlled vault. The slide rules, along with carrying cases, name tags and photos that accompany them, are stored in acid-free folders in an acid-free box in the Karnes Archives and Special Collections Research Center located in the Humanities, Social Science and Education Library. Copies of letters responding to Alleman's solicitations for slide rules are also stored in the same manner.

Although extra security measures are taken -- only one folder can be viewed at a time -- to ensure the slide rules are not misplaced, the archives and special collections staff encourage students, employees and the public to visit the collection, hold a piece of history and even snap some photos.

For more information on the astronaut slide rules collection, visit http://www4.lib.purdue.edu/archon/index.php?p=collections/controlcard&id=1410&q=slide+rules.

Source: Elizabeth Wilkinson, processing and public services archivist for Purdue University Libraries Archives and Special Collections.