Jack TenneyExtra Point

by Jack Tenney, Publisher

February 2003

Obsolescence

Obsolescence is all its cracked up to be.

My first entrepreneurial venture involved slide rules. For the vast majority of you, who have never used a slide rule, it is a calculation tool made of logarithmic scales mounted on two stocks and a slide fitted with a cursor scribed with a vertical hairline (or two). By manipulating the slide and the cursor, it's possible to multiply, divide and determine the answer to trigonometric problems. You know, like the cosine of angle?

Anyway, engineers, scientists, airline pilots, statisticians and students at all levels used, attempted to use or were required to learn how to use slide rules prior to 1967. I undertook the task of introducing a "new" slide rule to the United States market that very year.

I concentrated on college bookstores. I hit New England, New York City, the East, Big Ten, Southwest, far west. The top 50 campus bookstores served about one million students, with about 350,000 of them freshmen. Of the freshmen, about 20 percent were first-year engineering students. One didn't need a slide rule to miscalculate the size of the market for our fabulous product, only the flawed conclusion that has led many a new venture to pick a lemon in the garden of opportunity where only peaches were supposed to grow.

After sizing the market, we (my backers and me) concluded that "even if we only sell 2 percent of the market, we'll be in fat city."

Well, there were three dominant brands of rules supplying the market. The smallest, Post, was a laminated bamboo product with engine-divided scales. I said stuff like, "There ain't no bamboo going to the moon!" as I pitched against them. The largest and oldest brand was the K&E, the price leader and traditional choice of professionals. I pitched our price and monocoque plastic something or other, our price and patented cam-like end-cap design and, of course, our price. The third was Pickett, an aluminum design with photoengraved scales. I always tried to drop the Pickett on its end cap when reaching for a prospect's rule to examine it; wow, did that win me few friends and no sales.

My lowest day during that short career was a hot day in Houston, Texas. I was calling on Rice University, and it turned out to be San Jacinto Day and the campus was deserted except for the guard, who forbade me entrance to the parking lot. After I explained to him how far I had traveled to bring the word of the best new slide rule on the market to the deserving of the best, he drawled, "Heck fire, all our students use those little Texas Interments calculators. You oughta git one."

Every time I need a little reminder of how things could be worse, I picture myself standing at that guarded gate in front of a closed shop with an attaché case full of obsolete products. Also, I remember the only slide rule joke ever told:

The zoo veterinarian was summoned to the snake house to figure out why the reptiles weren't reproducing. He instructed the keeper to place a redwood picnic table inside the snake cage, explaining, "Even adders can multiply on a log table."

Get it?