Mike Konshak is a world-class collector of slide rules and the curator of the International Slide Rule Museum. Mike has a lot of accomplishments to his credit, including 29 patents, but his slide rule collection, for obvious reasons, is the thing we focused on in the following interview.
ephemera: How did you begin collecting slide rules, Mike?
Konshak: Slide rule collecting always seems to begin with the first one you get, which appears to be an obvious statement. In my case, the seed was planted in 1995 when I visited an associates house, a retired IBM engineer, who was helping me with a with a Ham radio antenna problem. Packed in the rafters of his basement shop, along with countless vacuum tubes and other electronic gadgets were some slide rules. He noticed how much I was enjoying manipulating one, and I may have been making little cooing noises, like you would with a baby, as I was rolling it over in my hands. He graciously handed it to me as I left his house. It was an all-American K&E 4081-3 Decitrig, and I kept it on top of my office desk for several years, next to my CAD station, a tool that completely replaced my drafting board in 1987. I had stopped using a slide rule when the Texas Instrument SR-10 became affordable in 1978, but now I was again able to enjoy caressing the fabled slipstick as I was waiting for drawings to print out.
In 2003, I think I may have been talking to some men at church one day and the discussion centered about all the things that people collect or acquire over time, knickknacks, sport cars, wives, etc . It was a broad conversation, but anyway, I said something to the effect, that "if I ever collected anything it would probably be slide rules". That led to reflections on what kind of slide rule we had in school or used before computers (the younger men drifting away to the coffee bar).
I had bought a couple things on eBay so when we got home, I got on my computer and did a search. My intent was to get a small variety to put in a shadow box or something, just as a conversation piece. There must have been over 600 slide rules listed and waiting to be auctioned off, all in various stages of condition and age. There were also several collector sites selling slide rules, and I sent email inquiries to some asking questions, about what were popular or what were good specimens to acquire. Ted Hume, of the Oughtred Society, was very helpful and he sent me a list of "must haves in any collection". Rarity wasn't a consideration, it was more a matter of what was the best examples of the art, the kind that a scientist or engineer would want.
If I would have left it at that, I would have been OK, but after searching and bidding on some slide rules, many times paying too much, I found myself noticing little nuances and subtle variations in each and every slide rule I saw on eBay. By this time I had had about 100 specimens and was having trouble keeping track of what I had, so I created a web page and placed scans of what I had in my collection.
I also began making a glossary of terms for my own edification as I would hear a name or a word, or see a scale I didn't understand and, after some research, I placed what I found out in my list of research notes. This was to become my encyclopedia, which gets expanded constantly. The internet has made researching easier and broader for the common man and I took advantage of it at every turn. I learned parts of many languages, including German, French, Spanish, Japanese and Russian, in order to decipher the text of slide rules to make my entries more accurate.
Now anywhere I was, I could get on a computer and check my collection, before buying a possible duplicate slide rule. A very dangerous tool when you think about it, and unfortunately, it didn't quite work out the way I intended it. Although I may have already had a particular manufacturer and model, I would see a 'steal' , costing much less than the first one that I unwisely purchased, and had to grab it up before someone else did. Reselling these later never worked out very well, because there were all these shipping and sales fees you had to deal with, which took away the original bargain. Engineers are generally not very good businessmen.
ephemera: Ah the trial of eBay, it's a familiar lament. What challenges do you encounter as a slide rule collector?
Konshak: One thing that I appreciated, which is ignored by most collectors who want pristine out-of-the-box condition slide rules, is to see the markings of the original owner's name on the slide rule, leather sleeve, or manual. I knew that somewhere in some past life this slide rule was used to get a student through school , to engineer some bridge or product, to help win a war or do some useful purpose, unknown to the rest of us. I wanted to capture the byproducts of the slide rule and to honor the life of the people who used them. I put whatever I knew about a person's history in with the pictures in my galleries. Consequently, I started having some people send me their Dad's slide rule as a memorial to them. One of my favorite slide rules is by George W. Richardson who was a one-man entrepreneurial shop in Chicago back in 1912 and he made an inexpensive slide rule out of sheet metal. His printing processes were to find their way into other slide rules like Gilson. Richardson's gallery on my web site was found by a great grand daughter and the family was very appreciative of my work as they had not known many details of their ancestor's accomplishments.
After I had acquired more than 1000 specimens, I found that I was getting more enjoyment in scanning slide rules and manuals and documenting historical details, than I was at actually owning one. The website was the only way that others were able to see my collection. The physical items were just languishing in many plastic bins, which were filling up my den. Abhorred with the possibility of having to sell these things piecemeal if I wanted to do something different, I made a few inquires with museums and schools to see if there was a place that might want to display my hoard. Slide rules are actually a very narrow (but significant) part of history so many places weren't interested, and if they were they balked at the size of the collection, not having enough real estate to display it.
In 2006, they found a home with the Computer History Museum in Mountainview, CA. Their primary interest was not because I had such a great collection with rare and hard-to-find-specimens, but because I had it become so well documented, as I also has an extensive library of scanned books and manuals on the subject. They could leverage my work as part of their own archival efforts. The collection, except for a few that I wanted for my own displays or what would not fit in my pickup, were driven out from Colorado and signed over to them. As it worked out, the Oughtred Society's west coast meeting was there, so it was just a good deal all around for me. Part of collecting is hanging out with other collectors. No one will appreciate what you do as much as they will. The Oughtred Society has allowed me to be their current webmaster, so I keep busy on many fronts.
Ephemera: What are some of your favorite items in your collection?
Knoshak: Today, as the curator of the International Slide Rule Museum, I collect mostly virtual slide rules and ephemera, gleaning scans from other collectors who had specimens that I didn't have and chasing down historical information of slide rule manufacturers and designers. My web site gets on average 30,000 hits a day from around the world and because of my exposure, I have helped supply the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, DC with specimens of Americana that they couldn't find themselves. People still send me slide rules to honor their loved ones, even from other countries. These I keep (they will never be sold) and in many cases I transfer them to other more appropriate places when possible. I was sent a slide rule from a lady that belonged to her father, along with his portrait and diploma from when he graduated from the University of Colorado in 1930.
It was a very short trip to give those articles to CU's cultural Heritage Museum on the Boulder campus.
One of my biggest joys is being able to share slide rules with others in my slide rule loaner program for students and educators. Slide rules are a great way for teachers to help explain logarithms to modern students.
It started out with one set of 25 matching Acu-math 400 slide rules that I loaned out to a school and has grown into over 16 sets of matching slide rules available in several countries administered by cooperative associates of the program in their native lands. These sets are sent free of charge to schools, and the only thing I require is they send them back on their own nickel in good condition, with a couple of digital photos of the class.
I'm back up to having several hundred slide rules again, mostly through donors, but these, for the most part are able to be seen, and more importantly, used by the curious. Hmmm, I wonder if my old alma mater, CSU, needs a slide rule display?
ephemera: Thank you, Mike.