Circular slide rule

I explained the basics of how a slide rule works in the previous post. But how does a circular slide rule work?

Mr. Spock holding an E6B circular slide rule

Apparently the prop Mr. Spock is holding is an E6B aircraft slide rule. It includes a circular slide rule and more functionality.

Start with an ordinary straight slide rule, with each bar labeled 1 on the left and 10 on the right end. Now imagine bending this into a circle so that you now have two concentric circles. For x between 1 and 10, the label for x is located at

log10 x × 360°.

Suppose you want to multiply x and y, and xy is less than 10, i.e. log10 x + log10 y < 1. Then the multiplication procedure works exactly analogously to how it would have with a straight slide rule. Line up the 1 of the inner ring with the position of x on the outer ring. The position of y on the inner ring lines up with xy on the outer ring because it is at position

log10 x × 360° + log10 y × 360° = log10 xy × 360°.

But what if xy > 10, i.e. log10 x + log10 y > 1? In that case the y on the inner ring is at position

(log10 x + log10 y) × 360°- 360° = (log10 x + log10 y – 1) × 360°

which is equal to

(log10 x + log10 y – log10 10) × 360° = log10 (xy/10) × 360°

and so the y on the inner ring is aligned with the position labeled xy/10. As we noted in the previous post, slide rules only give you the significand (mantissa) of the result, so a slide rule doesn’t know the difference between xy and xy/10. That’s up to you to keep up with.

E6B Flight Computer

Update: After first posting this article, I bought an E6B flight computer from Amazon for about $14. I bought the paper version because I’m certainly not going to wear it out. But if you’d like a nicer one, they make the same product in metal.

Here’s a photo of mine:

E6B analog flight computer

You can slide the horizontal piece out and essentially have a circular slide rule with some extra markings.

2 thoughts on “Circular slide rule

  1. The writers obviously thought it would make Spock look intelligent to TV viewers of the era, but how strangely anachronistic it seems now for a 23rd-century science officer to be using a slide rule.

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