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Oscar Aderman and His Gift for Math and Building

September 29, 2011

Back in the 70’s when this writer was an undergraduate studying microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison (Go Badgers!), my calculator broke down in the middle of a calculus exam. Besides doing poorly on the test, I was left with the dilemma of trying to come up with $70 for a calculator that handled trigonometry functions. I lived on $50 a month (it was a different time!); calculators were a new invention (remember slide rules?) and were still quite expensive–especially when the same calculator today would sell for less than $20. I called home to see if my parents could help me out and Grandpa and Grandma were there visiting. Grandpa (Oscar Dearl) Aderman offered to pay for the calculator–an incredibly wonderful gift to this poor college student.

A few months later I was visiting Grandpa and Grandma in Niagara, WI and brought my new calculator along to show them. Before I continue, let me tell you something about Grandpa’s life. He had to quit school after the 8th grade because he was the oldest child and had to help support his younger brothers and sisters. He worked at a lumber camp in the winters from the ages of 13 – 18, then worked at home on the farm in the growing season. I always knew him to be an avid reader and envied his set of encyclopedias. I had not begun to recognize the depth of his knowledge!

I wanted to show him this great new calculator that he had paid for but I did not quite know how to explain sine and cosine and tangents, etc. to him with his limited schooling. As I was showing it to him, he got a wonderful look on his face, a look of “I think I might know something,” and invited me down to his workshop. When we arrived, he went to a shelf and pulled out an old trigonometry book, well-worn and blessed with occasional grease marks. In the back of the book were the tables for calculating sine, cosine, and tangent. He explained how he used trigonometry and those tables as he built the machines that he had developed over the years. He knew trig better than I did, learned it on his own, and used it routinely! I left in awe of him and plenty humbled.

wood splitter
The wood splitter made by Oscar Dearl Aderman, still in use today.

 

I was splitting wood yesterday with the wood splitter Grandpa made for Dad about 30 years ago. I suspect that trigonometry was used in the building of it. Of course, at the time and being a lumberjack of old, Gramps thought one would split wood with an axe. I remember his fascination as Dad told him there was a new invention out there for splitting with a machine. Could Grandpa make one? Well, he thought he might be able to. It is as solid as can be and still works great. His gift for building and for mathematics continues to touch us 22 years after his death.

One last thought: after Gramps died, I got to have his trigonometry book. It is one of my dearest possessions.

From → Aderman/Bates

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