View from the Mountain
View from the Mountain
Fun with Slide Rules – as told by a former science nerd
By David J. Griffin
When I was a student at Mt. Vernon High School (MVHS) – 1959 to 1962 – my interests were centered toward the math and science classes that were available. Both of these fields of study were relatively easy for me to understand. I had developed an interest during my years in elementary school.
Some of my favorite teachers were found in the math and science departments of the school. I took every class that they taught during my four years at MVHS. Who could ever forget sitting in class under the direction of Dorothy and Bill Landrum, “Tuck” Baker, or Coach Berry?
When I entered the University of Kentucky (UK) in the summer of 1962, I declared that my major and minor would be Biology and Chemistry. To attain a degree in these subjects required that I also take several math classes including: College Algebra, Trigonometry, and Calculus. In all three of these math classes and in most of my chemistry classes, the professors demanded that each student purchase and become acquainted with operating a slide rule. Until that time, I had never seen nor used one, so the idea was foreign to me. Throughout the 1950s and 1960s, the slide rule was the symbol of the math and science student in the same way that a stethoscope symbolized the medical profession.
In case you’re not familiar with the item, allow me to introduce you to the use and functions of a slide rule. It is a mechanical analog device, used primarily for multiplication and division of very large numbers. It is also used for certain functions such as roots, logarithms and trigonometry. Before the advent of the pocket calculator, it was the most commonly used calculation tool in science and mathematics.
William Oughtred and John Napier collectively developed the slide rule in approximately 1620. The devices became common in the United States around 1881. Its use continued to grow and became extremely popular in the US during the 50s. It lasted until 1974, when the electronic scientific calculator made the slide rule obsolete.
I think it is interesting that Wernher von Braun brought two 1930s vintage Nestler slide rules with him when he moved to the US after World War II to work on the American space program. Throughout his life, he never used any other pocket calculating devices. Aluminum Pickett brand slide rules were carried on five Apollo space missions, including to the moon.
My chemistry professor at UK expressively instructed us to purchase a specific Pickett, ten-inch rule for his class. Almost every male student had a black leather holster fastened to his belt as he strolled across campus toward the Chemistry/Physics building. I remember walking into Kennedy Book Store at UK to purchase my own Picket rule. In those days, the cost was in the neighborhood of $55, and the leather holster was an additional $5 – an exorbitant price for the time. During the first week of my chemistry class, we spent most of the time learning how to use the mechanical calculator. A few of the students dropped the class because they could not master calculating very large numbers using the new rule.
When I began my own teaching career at Campbellsville High School in 1965, I purchased enough basic slide rules so that all of my students could master its use in my chemistry classes. I even had a three-foot, wall-mounted wooden slide rule hanging over my blackboard in order to be able to demonstrate its use to the entire class at one time. Little did I realize that its importance was going to end in a very few years.
By the mid-70s, my chemistry classes were using the Texas Instrument TI-30 pocket electronic calculators, and teachers had to explain their use just as we had done with slide rules earlier. The new calculators increased the significant numbers possible in scientific calculations. The typical precision of a slide rule was only about three significant digits, compared to many digits on a digital calculator.
It may seem odd, but I have rather an affection for the old-fashioned slide rule as a sort of memento. I will admit, however, that electronic is the only way to go in the modern world. I guess you could say that I had an affair with the slide rule, but I married the calculator! Does that make me sound like a science geek? Well, for at least a time there, I guess I was.
(You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can drop me a line at P.O. Box 927 – Stanton, KY 40380. I appreciate your comments and suggestions. You can also receive information concerning my book, View from the Mountain.)
By David J. Griffin
My wife and I recently took a winter vacation to the Great Smokey Mountains. We stayed in a condo with a great view of the snow-covered peaks in the distance. Our idea of a vacation in Pigeon Forge or Gatlinburg may be different from many visitors to the area. We are not shoppers; we spend very little time walking up and down the main drag in Gatlinburg stopping to look into the multiple businesses. We generally take several trips into the park to look for wildlife, visit the arts and craft shops in the area, and eat at our favorite restaurants. This time was no exception.
One morning we decided to sleep in and have a late breakfast. We were able to find a restaurant that served breakfast at any time, and this particular café had a roaring fire burning near our table. When I opened the menu, I immediately noticed one item that caught my attention – they actually had “lasses” and biscuits as a choice. I pointed out my selection to Kathy, and we had a lengthy discussion about what I had ordered. The “lasses and a robust cup of coffee” were just enough to return me to my childhood days in Rockcastle County.
As a young man living with my grandparents (Pop and Mommie Katie) in Mt. Vernon, sorghum molasses was a normal staple found on the table for almost every meal. It was Pop’s request that the sweet condiment be available every time we had homemade biscuits. And we had homemade biscuits a lot.
I can see him now as he prepared his favorite biscuit topping. He always began with a small saucer and fresh butter to start his formulation. Into the saucer he placed a large hunk of butter; then he covered it with molasses. He proceeded by taking his fork and mixing the two ingredients until they were thoroughly blended into a yellow jelly-like consistency. This concoction was then carefully layered on top of a hot biscuit and devoured by my grandfather. I am certain that it was his favorite morning treat.
Pop had a friend in the neighborhood who owned a team of mules. Pop had this gentleman turn his garden each year, and they became friends. On several occasions, Pop took me with him to watch his friend make sorghum molasses. As anyone can imagine, I was thoroughly impressed with the process.
I was permitted to feed the sugar cane stalks into the press as the team of mules turned the huge wooden wheel. The juice that was extracted was boiled to concentrate and crystallize the sugar. The result of this boiling process is called “first molasses,” which contains a very high sugar content. If it is boiled again, the extraction is slightly bitter and is called “second molasses.” If it is boiled a third time, the resulting liquid is called “blackstrap” molasses, which has a robust flavor and high concentrations of calcium, magnesium, potassium, and iron. It has long been sold as a health supplement.
After Pop and I watched the molasses-making process, we always took several jars of the sweet, brown liquid home with us. I can never remember being without sorghum in our pantry. It truly was a staple in our home. My mother (Bee) and Mommie Katie both also loved the taste of “lasses” for breakfast, and, on occasion, at other meals.
Each year, sorghum molasses is produced at Gladie, which is found in the Daniel Boone National Forest in Powell County. Kathy and I have watched several times as the process unfolds by those demonstrating their techniques. Watching the cane sugar being boiled makes my mouth water because I immediately recall the process as a young man.
Odors can contain very strong prompts of certain memories, and this is certainly one of them. I find that I cannot leave the area without purchasing a couple of jars of the brown delight. My wife is not much of a fan of molasses, but I have long been hooked on the taste and smell of the sugary mixture. Just like Pop, I mix my blend with butter to produce the thick, sweet, composite to top off my biscuits. Add a pot of coffee, and I am completely satisfied.
I’ve made some of you hungry for some “lasses,” haven’t I? Well, just join in, because I’ve made myself hungry for it, too.
(You can reach me at email@example.com or you can drop me a line at P.O. Box 927 – Stanton, KY 40380. Thanks for your continued responses to my column.)
Remembering the “Good Old Days”
By David J. Griffin
I dropped my wife off at work and decided afterwards to stop at a local farmer’s market location in order to visit with some friends. After a few minutes, Phillip Wells joined Gary Bowen and me as we discussed how great it was to have been boys in a small town growing up in the 50s.
It was so refreshing for me to be on the listening side of things and to hear the gentlemen talk about how they were raised on farms in the county. Over and over, we each expressed how we wish we could go back to those times when we were young and innocent.
Phillip spoke of how his grandfather grew or raised almost everything they needed to get through the winter. We talked about the variety of vegetables that were produced on our individual farms, and how our grandparents canned or preserved the items that we would need in the coming winter months.
The discussion reminded me of a conversation that my wife and I once had years ago. She was listening to me tell some of our friends about the food that my grandmother brought to the table when I lived on our small farm in Rockcastle County. She heard me explain that we served country ham, half-runner beans, sliced tomatoes, corn on the cob, cucumbers, radishes, onions – and especially a “pone” of cornbread from an old iron skillet, which had baked in the wood-burning stove in the kitchen. Finally, Kathy remarked, “You always tell that your family was poor when you were a child; it can’t possibly be true. Fried chicken for breakfast? I never saw any poor people who had those kinds of meals on the table!”
My reply was that what I meant was that we did not have a lot of money. That was true, but we were blessed to have a farm that allowed us to produce almost everything we needed. Our wealth was in our land – and in our ability to labor to provide ourselves with practically all of our needs.
Gary was regretful that those days are “gone forever!” Phillip and I agreed. Almost everything about our lives has changed in ways that will prevent us from ever returning to those times that were so satisfying when we were youngsters.
We also discussed hunting game when we were just boys. Immediately, we each piped up, almost in unison, “But we never killed anything that we were not going to eat.” That, of course, took me back to a moment in time that I had with my grandfather when I was only ten years old. He had just purchased my first shotgun, which was a Stevens’ single- shot, 20-gauge firearm. The first time we ventured into the woods, Pop began teaching: “David Joe, I want you to remember one important thing about hunting. You never shoot anything that you are not going to eat.” I never forgot the lessons that he taught me that day.
I also lamented the fact that my grandchildren will never know the satisfaction they could experience by hunting small game in the woods of Kentucky. It saddens me that this is the case. Some of my most wonderful experiences involve being with Pop in the woods with our shotguns, stalking small game in order for my grandmother to prepare for our dinner meal.
Mommie Katie could cook a squirrel better than anyone I ever knew. I am not sure how she accomplished this feat, but I do remember that she boiled the whole squirrel until it was tender, then she removed them from the water and completed the process by frying them in an old iron skillet. That was a feast for sure.
Gary also reminded us about how safe we felt in those days and times. He said, “When we went to bed at night, we simply hooked the screen door and went to sleep confident that all was well with the world.” That was exactly how I felt as a boy. I can remember my bedroom having wooden-framed screens placed in my two windows, allowing the cool night air to breeze lightly across my bed. And our front door, too, was secured only by that proverbial screen door hook. Not one time do I recall fearing that someone would break into our house. Heck, the screens were only there to keep the insects and the animals out!
In light of our fond memories of growing up, the three of us expressed concern about the future of society in America. Neither one of us could remember a time when the future seemed so bleak. Phillip commented on the television news presentations that are broadcast every night. “We never hear about anything positive on the world’s front any more. There seems to be only trouble wherever we look, and it is getting worse all the time.” Gary and I nodded in agreement.
I suppose the last topic we hit upon is the price of trucks and automobiles in the United States today. I reminded them of my first new car, which was a 1963 Chevrolet Impala Super Sport. Phillip suggested, “I bet that Chevy cost about $3,000.” He was correct of course. I think I paid a total of $3,300 for it. We determined that a good estimate of the same vehicle today would likely be in excess of $40,000. Gary told us about one of the first trucks his family purchased, and he guessed that it had cost just under $2,000.
So there we were. The three of us “senior citizens” (I have a hard time describing myself as an old man.) acting precisely the way that old men did when we were young. Do you remember thinking, “Why are they always talking about the olden days?” It seemed so boring to us as youngsters.
But, alas, we are youngsters no more. Now, we are the old geezers who can’t let go of the good times we had as kids. And they were, really, very good times! I finally understand now why groups of old men used to sit around and reminisce with one another – because now I am one of them.
(You can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org or you can drop me a line at P.O. Box 927 – Stanton, KY 40380. I appreciate your comments and suggestions.