A mechanical device formerly used by engineers and scientists for rapid and approximate multiplication, division, extraction of roots, raising to powers, and other simple computations. The slide rule has been almost totally superseded by the small hand-held electronic calculator. The principle of the slide rule is the translation of all computations to equivalent additions or subtractions that can be carried out on a set of scales sliding over each other. Thus, two uniformly graduated marked scales can be used for addition or subtraction, multiplication, division, powers, and logarithms. Other scales, such as for sine, cosine, and tangent, and logarithm and for calculations involving p (pi) are also found on the usual rectilinear slide rule. A glass runner or cursor with a finely engraved vertical line is provided for easier alignment of the scales.
The computational accuracy possible depends on the size of the slide rule and on the care with which the scales are printed. The commonly used 10-in. slide rule permits multiplications and divisions to be made with an accuracy of about 1/10th percent, which suffices for many engineering calculations. Both the rectilinear and the less commonly used circular slide rule were invented by the English mathematician William Oughtred shortly after the discovery of logarithms. Various special slide rules have been devised for the solution of widely applicable engineering formulas, or for business calculations, such as the determination of interest, compound interest accumulation, and depreciation.
(Adapted from Encarta Encyclopedia)