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Engineering Freebies of the Past

I really enjoy estate sales.  You have the opportunity to wander through someone’s house, look at everything that the family has not already picked out, and decide what kind of person lived there.  Sometimes you encounter a very boring person (at least to me—I expect those folks would find me boring too).  Other times you discover someone with very engaging interests, stimulating books, and creative workspaces.  Many times you not only discover their interests, you find their old college textbooks and can tell if they are active in their religion.  Sometimes you find things that you wished the family would have kept like that 60 year old wedding or christening dress.  But I certainly understand that houses fill up and you can’t keep every memento.

I was an estate sale a few months back.  From the text books I could tell that this person spent a career as a chemist or a chemical engineer.  I pondered what a retired chemical engineer would have that I might find interesting.  Looking through the office supplies, I happened upon what I was looking for—the two little vinyl pouches below.

Industrial salespeople give out gifts of negligible value to lure potential purchasers away from their cubicles into the conference room to listen to the salesperson’s pitch.  The same freebies are given out at college career fairs.  These are usually cheap office tools that the recipient might use day to day.  They sport the logo of the salesperson’s company.  Here are some current freebies—a calculator from Motorola and a thumb drive given to new students at Southern Methodist University.

If we look inside those vinyl packets I found we will see freebies aimed at technical people who worked in the petrochemical industry during the 1960s—slide rules!

Every engineer who did day to day calculations before the rise of hand-held electronic calculators in the early 1970s had a slide rule.  You may have a nice one you keep at your desk, but cheap plastic circular rules could be stuffed into a shirt pocket and used during a conversation in the hall with a colleague.  They were favorite give-aways to engineers in the sixties and perhaps before.  The owner of these two was apparently visited by representatives of Collier Carbon and Chemical Corporation as well as Amberlite Ion Exchange Resins.

Both rules were marketed under the Concise name brand, and provide some pretty handy information.  In addition to performing calculations, the larger has a perpetual calendar.  Conversion tables are on the back of both.

One of these was still in its factory packing, so I expect it was stuffed into my host’s desk until he or she retired.  Others were used extensively.  I remember a chemical engineer at my former employer who even in the 1980s kept one of these give-away circular slide rules in his car to calculate gas mileage.  He told me, “Hey, I never have to replace the batteries.”

All to say, the desks of engineers everywhere slowly fill up during their careers with such trinkets.  Some eventually become old enough to gain novelty status.

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