The missing link between slide rules and calculators

The transition from slide rule to calculators was a shocking shift for slide rule manufacturers, and of course few made the transition. But not for lack of trying, and one of the most interesting responses was the Faber-Castell TR3, manufactured in 1975 (yes, there was a TR1). At first blush, the TR3 was nothing special — just a calculator:

But… flip it over, and… it was also a sliderule!

At first blush, the TR3 looks like the proverbial missing link, still dripping wet as it crawls out of the analog ocean onto the digital shore. And certainly proof, if any was needed, that technologies evolve. But the story is not quite so simple. For starters, the slide rule companies took calculators seriously, but only as slide rule substitutes. They assumed that calculators would slowly replace slide rules in the niches where slide rules were sold — pleces like college bookstores.

The slide rule manufacturers thus never guessed that calculators would become a must-have item for ordinary folk who would flock to purchase them in department stores, book stores, drug stores and even supermarkets. This meant that instead of a gradual shift that the slide rule makers could easily manage, the change was exponential and far beyond what they could possibly respond to.

But still they tried, and the TR3 was part of the effort. Its predecessor, the TR1 came out in 1973, a year after the first calculators appeared, and Faber-Castell quickly upgraded it to the TR2 in 1974, and then the TR3 in 1975. An impressive sequence, particularly given the fact that they had to buy the chips from their calculator competitors (like Texas Instruments), and they had to tool up in electronics even as the bottom was dropping out of their core slide rule business.

But in the end, the TR3’s calculator was far behind the competition, and the slide rule was superfluous as slip-stick jocks defected in favor of TIs, Commodores and HPs. Faber-Castell’s heroic try at jumping into electronics was for naught, and the company got out of the business soon after. The sobering lesson is that it is not enough to see the future; one must also have the resources to respond. It is one thing to wish to fly; it is quite another to actually sprout wings and take to the air. The slide rule companies knew what they had to do; they simply couldn’t get from here to there.