# Any SF stories have FTL spaceship navigation being done with a slide rule?

A friend claims this is gospel, but did not recall a specific example. Anyone know of a story where an FTL spaceship is hurtling along at a gazillion furlongs per fortnight with navigation calculations being done on a slide rule?

Not quite a slide rule, but in Starman Jones by Robert Heinlein, calculations for doing a ‘transition’ through anomolies in spacetime are done by mathematicians who read tables from books, do math in their heads, and give the answers to computer operators who punch the results into the computer, which sounded to me more like a bombsight than what we would consider a ‘computer’ today.

As long as we’re talking Heinlein, this segment is from an article by Michael Goodwin about Robert Heinlein’s work, including his screenplay for Destination Moon (1950):

Although not on an FTL ship, it’s certainly a scene in which the math is done by the humans instead of computers.

There’s a scene in one of the Lensman books, by E.E. “Doc” Smith, where the chief engineer type guy whips out his slide rule to figure out the route to the next galaxy. Granted, they were stopped at the time, but it was very much a FTL ship. In that series, they had an “inertialess” drive. As long as the ship was inertia free, it would instantly accelerate to the speed at which friction exactly balanced the thrust of the drive. Obviously, you don’t get a lot of friction in deep space, so they’d go many many times the speed of light.

I remember, vaguely, one short story in which the computer of a FTL starship crashed, and the crew was reduced to doing calculations with abaci. Apparently, the point of the story was that you could do some hefty calulations with some beads on a string. The last line, IIRC, was a radio message they sent which went something like: “Send help soon. Our fingers have worn down to the bone.”

My fave sci-fi writer of all time. I can’t recall the story, but he had someone doing navigation or other calcs with a slide rule…

One of the Star Trek novels involved several of the main characters trapped in a damaged shuttlecraft in the middle of some kind of gravitational anomaly zone. With the computer reduced to scrap that not even Scotty could fix, Chekov had to do his navigational calcs with a pen, covering most of the shuttle’s interior surfaces with his work.

On another Heinlein note, I seem to recall a FTL calculation on a slide rule in Citizen of the Galaxy. They have electronic calculators of some sort, but the captain doesn’t trust them, and works it out on the slide rule as a check.

I’m pretty sure Heinlein has navigational calculations being done with a slide rule in “Rolling Stones”, but I can’t verify that at the moment.

I’m pretty sure “Slipstick Libby” (the slipstick being a slide rule) did it in either “Time Enough for Love” or “Methuselah’s Children.” Actually, I’m very sure about the name of the person, not at all sure about which Heinlein book it was in. Sorry.

Andrew Jackson Libby, the genius savant, first appeared in “Misfit”, played a major role in “Methuselah’s Children”, was referred to in Time Enough for Love, and re-appeared in the Post-Senile works. But I don’t think we ever see him using a slide rule. He was called “Slipstick” because he was a human slide rule, not because he used one.

And I’m also almost sure that there was a slide rule used in The Rolling Stones, although that was strictly newtonian interplanetary stuff. I’ll check when I get home.

I also recall seing an illustration (I think it was a cover from a magazine) showing a Space Pirate climbing onto a ship, holding a sliderule in his teeth rather than the traditional piratical knife. I’m not sure if it was an FTL ship, though.

Not about slide rule navigation, but in a similar vein: I read an old SF story (sorry, don’t remember the title or author) that took place on a moon base. There was a scene in the commander’s office which talked about using a typewriter and carbon paper.

It’s funny the things that seem inevitable, and the things which are unimaginable. Back in the 50’s, space travel seemed like the up-and-coming thing. It was almost taken for granted that in a few decades, we’d be living on the moon, and flying back and forth to Mars for a summer vacation, but things like word processors and Xerox machines, to say nothing of PDA’s and picture-taking cell phones, were not even a blip on the radar.

IIRC, this was an Arthur Clarke one, with the ship following a comet … not FTL, as I recall, but the complexity of the calculations involved was still pretty considerable.

I also seem to remember a bit from Asimov’s Foundation trilogy where people were using some sort of advanced slide-rule for complex calculations (I think it was something to do with electroencephalograms, rather than space flight, though.)

What always gets me about old SF movies is that so few seemed to predict a future in which computers would have monitors. They often have computers that can talk, but one that could display images appears to have been beyond imagination for many. This seems especially strange since the television was already around, and I wouldn’t think it would be a huge leap to imagine a computer with a television attached.

There are a couple of Asimov stories in which it’s mentioned that before a starship can make an interstellar “jump”, the pilot has to do a lot of complex mathematics and check various reference guides to get the course right, lest the ship come out in the middle of a star. Though I can’t recall whether he SPECIFICALLY mentioned slide rules being used for these calculations, I can’t imagine that these pilots did ALL the work by hand.

As has been pointed out, Sci_Fi writers frequently get it wrong…even the late Isaac Asimov (who had a genius level IQ, and a Pd.D in Biochemistry) could not imagine DNA, small PCs, etc. Thus, his FOUNDATION trilogy had people sending written messages (in capsules) to eachother! Also, the SCiFi writers of the 1950s seemed to have faithn that nuclear power would be miniaturized-hence nuclear powered cars and airplanes.
The guy who I think got it right was C. M. Kornbluth-his “THE MARCHING MORONS” (read it!) turned out to be terrifyingly accurate!

A little off-topic, but Asimov’s short story “The Feeling of Power” posits a future in which people use calculators to the extent that they have forgotten how to do simple arithmatic. An eccentric derives and practices the algorithms for addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division, just for his own amusement. When this accomplishment is discovered, he is hailed as a genius, because he then has restored this power to the human race.

Having watched high school graduates attempting to make change, this scenario looks more plausible than it used to…

(The power is almost imediately abused, but the final paragraph of the book has the narrator thinking to himself that he knows that 2+2=4, and that nobody can take that knowlege away from him, which gives him an enourmous feeling of power, hence the title.)

A couple of years ago I was on a panel at a convention with a title that was something like “Slide Rules on space ships” or something like that. It referred in particular to George O. Smith’s stories that were collected into the book Venus Equilateral. I can’t recall if anyone actually used a slide rule in the book, although they do use cams for “programmed” flight (as Heinlein did in Rocketship Galileo, and, one imagines, in the film Destination Moon (where they do use a mechanical Differential Analyzer)). There’s no FTL in it, though (until they start to explore teleportation, I guess), but it’s the same midset.

Most of the examples I know of have been treated above, but I can think of one other one – the novel Life Ship by (I think) Harry Harrison and someone else has FTL calculations being done using, if not a slide rule, at least a reference book filled with values – like using a table of sines instead of a calculator.

I think I have posted this before, but there is a moment in one of the Lensman series where they have to read thru a gigantic, planet-sized database to find the galaxy’s top scientists to develop a new weapon (the sunbeam, IIRC).

They do it with a card reader.

I could hear the suspension of disbelief crack audibly.

Regards,
Shodan

It’s worse than that. They do it by hand. They put together a whole bunch of secretaries, who make a card for each person. Then they clip out a section of each card to correspond to each desired characteristic. Then they sort them in some absurdly manual way. Quite funny, actually.