Daily Archives: February 18, 2021

Katherine’s Bookshelf – Standard Mathematical Tables

Welcome back! Although I have the occasional novel, and a focus on non-fiction, I have a particular weakness for really old and hilariously dated textbooks. Today’s special guest star isn’t outdated in terms of its content – like all math textbooks, the math itself is still perfectly good – it’s outdated in terms of its actual function. The very existence of such a book is made obsolete by digital calculators. Let’s explore!

A big blue and gold old book, stuffed with tables for use with your slide rule.
This is the good stuff, right here.

Behold! This is Standard Mathematical Tables, 16th Edition. It’s about two and a half inches thick, printed on thin thin paper, and it’s crammed with exactly what it says in the title – tables. It was for a high school or college student, as a vital companion for a slide rule. Before there were pocket calculators or calculator apps on the phone in your pocket, there were slide rules. Here’s a nifty video on what a slide rule is, and how to use one (at least for the simple stuff).

What a slide rule is, and how to use it.

Nifty, right? So, to make things faster, you might need a big fat reference book of various functions, worked out to several places, hopefully beyond whatever precision you need. Ultimately, this lovely book is all of the things – in text – that your phone can do in less time than it takes to turn a single page. This particular copy is actually in very nice condition, and I really like seeing all the neat and tidy tables inside. It’s a masterpiece of organization and precision.

A big fat table of trigonometric functions to five places.
Trigonometric functions to five places. Squee!

Standard Mathematical Tables must have been pretty miserable to proof read, though, and check that all of these were actually correct. It went through sixteen different editions, too! I have no idea what they were adding, correcting, or updating, but I hope it was worth it.

A big fat table of integrals.
This is how you know you’re going to have a real good time.

When I saw this book for cheap one day, I decided to get it and keep it partially out of respect for the immense effort and expertise that went into making it, but mostly out of amazement for the forgotten calculating technology it represents. After a certain amount of time, this book stopped being merely out of date, and became a piece of history in its own right. But, at least, if I ever get a slide rule, I’ll be prepared.

A wildly obsolete calculating tool like Standard Mathematical Tables won’t be found in the library’s collection, although our Friends of the Library book sales might offer up some unique finds if you are willing to hunt for them. The story of Standard Mathematical Tables and its technological eclipse is a reminder that a non-fiction book is sometimes much more than a means of serving up facts.

— Article by Katherine, Shawnee