Slide rule article in today's Wall Street Journal

From: evan <>
Date: Tue Feb 18 00:40:37 2003

Hi listmates, some might be interested in this:

- Evan K.


Calculating Collector Scours Globe Hunting for Slide


KELOWNA, British Columbia -- Walter Shawlee opened a
wooden case and lovingly pulled out a 12-inch piece of
Lucite etched with numbers and symbols. "There are
only so many of these remaining," he said.

To virtually anyone old enough to remember the slide
rule, it's an ancient relic that was deservedly
consigned to the trash bin. Not so to Mr. Shawlee, 53,
who has launched an international hunt for these
mathematical instruments that use logarithmic scales
to multiply, divide and make more complex

Mr. Shawlee taps his network of contacts from
Singapore to Venezuela to check out the back rooms of
musty stationery stores and bookshops. He has
recruited his wife, Susan, to track down old
slide-rule inventories. And he spends up to eight
hours a day restoring battered slide rules, and
combing the Internet, estate sales and flea markets.
He says he makes $125,000 a year reselling slide rules
he acquires.

"When we used slide rules every day back in the 1960s,
we were able to send people to the moon," says Mr.
Shawlee, who came of age when the device was still the
rule in trigonometry class.

Slide rules, which resemble either rulers or discs,
were a boon to the mathematically minded and a bane to
everyone else. To multiply two times two, for example,
the user moves the "zero" of one scale to the number
two on another scale. Then the user looks at the
number two on the first scale, and above that is the
number four.

Confused? So were many other people, which is why the
slide-rule industry took a big hit in 1972, when
Hewlett-Packard Co. launched its first scientific
hand-held calculator. Almost overnight, demand for
slide rules dried up, wiping out venerable
manufacturers such as Pickett Inc. and Keuffel & Esser
Co. and leaving boxes of unopened slide rules in
stores, warehouses and schools. In the ensuing
decades, a flicker of interest in the instruments was
kept alive by a small community of collectors. In
Emeryville, Calif., enthusiasts formed a society to
show off their collections. In Dallas, some collectors
still hold an annual competition to see who can make
the speediest calculations.

But slide rules are more than quirky bric-a-brac to
the true believers. Many engineers still swear by
them. Some teachers today are reintroducing the
devices into classrooms, arguing that they foster
more-complex thought processes than electronic
calculators do. At the University of California in San
Diego, Prof. Joe Pasquale launched a freshman seminar
on slide rules in January. "I always felt we lost
something when we stopped using slide rules," says Mr.
Pasquale. "They're so much more an extension of your
mind than a replacement to it."

A slide rule made by A.W. Faber Castell Vertrieb GmbH,
now discontinued, is one of the most popular models
among collectors.
The problem is slide rules are getting harder to find.
Of the few manufacturers that survived the

calculator tsunami, most produce only a few types of
slide rules and often in limited numbers. Concise Co.
in Japan still makes circular slide rules, for
example, but the quantity "has become much smaller,"
says spokeswoman Chiho Takayama. American Slide Chart
Corp. in Carol Stream, Ill., annually makes 25 million
cardboard slide-charts, which are similar to slide
rules, but they are "largely promotional," says Julie
Johnson, the company's president.

Thus, many would-be buyers turn to Mr. Shawlee. "He's
Mr. Slide Rule," says Ted Hume, a 64-year-old engineer
in San Angelo, Texas, who sold off part of his
slide-rule collection to Mr. Shawlee several years
ago. "Walter knows everybody in the slide-rule racket.
He does everyone lots of favors and he'll buy slide
rules from you or barter them."

Mr. Shawlee's impressive slide-rule stash was on
display one recent morning at his crammed office in
this Canadian resort and winery town, a 40-minute
flight inland from Vancouver. Several hundred slide
rules, most in mint condition and in their original
boxes, were stacked floor- to-ceiling in a room where
Mr. Shawlee also runs a business that repairs and
designs engineering equipment. At home, he has another
1,000 or so slide rules scattered across the dining
table, in his home office and in his sauna.

At any one time, Mr. Shawlee, a transplanted
Californian who emigrated to Canada three decades ago,
has 1,500 to 3,000 slide rules in stock. He says he
acquires about 10% of his inventory through eBay,
while the rest comes from private sales and through
his extensive network of slide-rule hunters. He
resells many of the slide rules for as little as $10.
Some models go for $600, depending on the rarity of
the rule, and he can sell a truly uncommon one for as
much as $3,000.

Mr. Shawlee fell into the slide-rule trade shortly
after he accidentally rediscovered his old high-school
slide rule in a desk drawer in 1992. "My eyeballs
snapped open," he says, recalling how he carried his
slide rule on his belt as a kid. "There's just
something magic about them." He started a collection,
setting up an informational Web site on the devices in
1997. He received dozens of inquiries from people
asking where they could buy the instruments.


Read selected excerpts from the anthology
"Floating Off the Page: The Best of The Wall Street
Journal's 'Middle Column.' "

That was when Mr. Shawlee started amassing stockpiles
of slide rules from other collectors. Over a few
months, he bought more than 300. "Are you trying to
corner the slide-rule market?" his wife nervously
asked him as the hoard continued to grow.

Mr. Shawlee always puts aside about $5,000 in cash to
be ready to wire for a purchase. One of his largest
hauls came several years ago from a contact in
Singapore, attorney Foo Cheow Ming, whom he met via an
e-mail correspondence. After one e-mail discussion
with Mr. Shawlee, Mr. Foo went to an old bookstore in
downtown Singapore and asked the owner whether he had
any slide rules. "How many crates do you want?" the
owner replied. In the back room, Mr. Foo discovered 40
unopened crates, containing more than 12,000 slide
rules of all types.

"I found the mother lode," says Mr. Foo, who had no
interest in setting up his own slide-rule dealership
and shipped most of the crates off to Mr. Shawlee, who
paid a bit more than $8,000 for the lot. "Since then,
I've never stopped hunting for Walter. I've gone to
Kuala Lumpur to look and still plan to go to Penang,
Bangkok and Shanghai to find some," Mr. Foo says.
"It's all in the thrill of the hunt."
Received on Tue Feb 18 2003 - 00:40:37 GMT

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