Thursday, July 13, 2006

RETRO TOY FLASHBACK # 44: Hasbro's Think-A-Tron - Electronic Question and Answer Computer!

"It Thinks! It Answers! It Remembers!" It's "amazing," "fascinating" and "educational." Wow!

You just never know what you're going to find at a flea market...

Last week, I was back in Deltaville, VA, visiting in-laws with Kathryn, and I unearthed another retro-toy treasure. This time, it's "the machine that thinks like a man," Hasbro's 1960 toy/learning device, the all-mighty Think-A-Tron. My sister-in-law, Julie, purchased the toy for me as an early Christmas gift, and now here it is...featured on the blog.

The amazing Think-A-Tron comes from the far-flung year of 1960, a year when computers seemed like miraculous devices that sometimes filled an entire room (or several rooms...). They operated on punch-cards, and were esoteric things that not all Americans had a familiarity with. The Think-a-Tron was designed to bring that "technology" home to kids right here in the U.S. of A. It's an educational tool and a fun toy too! The Think-A-Tron I found was still in its box (which had been taped on the top...), and appears unused. It now earns a place of reverence and worship in my office.

Inside the instruction manual, Hasbro had the following to say about the Think-A-Tron (in a sub-section entitled "Facts About Data Processing Machines"):

"There are new types of machines being made today that would have seemed impossible a few years ago. They quickly and effortlessly do work that once required many human minds and many hours to accomplish.

These new machines, called "Data Processing Machines" can "read" and "write" hundreds of times faster than humans can. They have "memories" able to store millions of bits of information to be used when it is needed. They can make intelligent decisions from the information given them, write out their answers and even control other machines.

They can do mathematical equations thousands of times faster than human minds can and on certain difficult problems requiring very exact values. They can be made to continue working, performing millions of operations until extremely accurate answers are obtained.

Sometimes, these difficult problems take several hours for the machine to complete, but this is fast because these problems would otherwise take many years of calculating by other methods. With faster and more exact calculations, airplanes can be designed to fly faster, rockets made more accurate and dependable, even old products, such as camera lenses, are made more perfect. Without the "Data Processing Machines," many of our latest technical achievements would have been impossible.

Of course, these new machines do not really "read" as humans do, instead of eyes for "reading," they use electrical sensing devices and they do not read books and magazines but read patterns on punched holes in cards or tape or sometimes they read magnetic patterns on discs or drums. Instead of living protoplasm, their "memory" might be thousands of little magnets.

They do not ""write" with pencil and paper, but write instead with electric printers, lights or by punching holes in cards. And they do not really "think" as humans do, but instead follow very simple and exact rules built into them by their designers.

Those of us not familiar with these new machines find them mysterious and often worry about their effect on our lives. Where earlier machines that man invented, such as the steam engine or the electric motor, were meant to increase his muscle power, the Data processing Machines are meant to increase his mental power and to do work that formerly required people's minds to perform.

The Think-A-Tron machine contains some of the more important elements of actual Data Processing Machines. The miniature punch cards contain information that the machine must "read." After reading the card, the Think-A-Tron selects the correct information from storage and prints out the answer in lights on the display screen."

Man, isn't that just great? A toy from another age! Before that new fangled thing called a PC. I hope someone has one of these things safely displayed in a museum somewhere (other than my office...). As for the punch cards, they ask great True/False questions. One asks if the population of the Earth is "1 billion," "2 billion" or "3 billion." This multiple-choice selection badly ages the Think-A-Tron, alas, since there are now 6.4 billion people on the planet. Computers - sadly - are only as good as the information we feed them, I suppose.

Other questions: "The scorpion is a type of?" (a. fish) (b. insect) (c. bird). "The speed of light is approximately?" (a. 1,000 miles per second), (b. 300,000 miles per second) (c. 186,000 miles per second). I hasten to add, "all questions and answers" have been "compiled and authenticated from THE BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE" according to the Think-A-Tron's box. Well, there's that, then. All hail the mighty BOOK OF KNOWLEDGE. You are wise, oh great Landru...peace be with you.

Okay, I need to stop playing with this thing and get back to work. I keep feeding the machine these punch cards waiting for answers. I feel like William Shatner getting his fortune told by a Bobble-Headed little devil in that Twilight Zone episode, "the Nick of Time." "The United States is the chief producer of cotton in the world?" True or false? "The oldest culture in the Far East is the Japanese?" True or false? "Silk is obtained from" (plants? caterpillars? sheep?) "Radar will not operate efficiently in heavy fog?" True or false? Come on! True or false?

Man, this is fun! Wait...don't I have a TV show to edit? A book to write? Okay, now I feel like Charlton Heston's Taylor discovering a human doll in Cornelius's cave in the Forbidden Zone, showing Dr. Zaius an artifact from an earlier age. "Think-A-Tron was here before Apple and Commodore VIC-20s...and it was better!!!!" Well, er - not really. Anyway - culturally speaking - at least we were more naive back then, in the Kennedy Age, in the epoch of Hasbro's Think-A-Tron. Back then we were amazed by a device wherein "Wheels Turn - Lights Flash!" Today? Not so much...

I wonder if I can program this thing to write my book for me...


  1. Cool. Since John's blog doesn't allow anonymous posts anymore I went ahead and registered. I may actually start using this for my own blogs. This Think a Tron game looks awesome. I sort of long for the days when computers were less complicated and not so much a part of our lives. This game reminds me of the old World's Fair type of stuff where future technology seemed wonderous and life was just going to get better and better. Somehow the future didn't turn out to be as cool as we had imagined it.

  2. Awesome! I want one!

  3. M. Kerlin9:25 AM

    My memory of the Think-a-Tron revolves around a special discovery in my young life. One day before Christmas, I was rambling through my parents closet in search of the hidden treasures that dwell in there sometimes, when I found a shopping bag with a Think-a-Tron secreted away within. I couldn't imagine why it was there and in my year 9 year old mind there weren't very many avenues of explanation to explore and so I closed the closet door and waited for the moment that it's true purpose would be revealed.
    Imagine my shock and disappointment when to my undying sorrow, on Christmas morning it appeared under the Christmas tree as one of "Santa's" gifts for me. My reality was changed on that day and for evermore as the truth of Santa, or the lack there of, came crushing down upon me.
    That was 47 years ago and I still remember it like it was yesterday. It's amazing how such a small thing can have such a lasting effect on us.
    20 years ago I was fortunate enough to locate one in mint condition, still in its original box, and I have treasured it ever since.
    I don't know its value in dollars but the memories it ellicits within are indeed, priceless.

  4. Anonymous2:16 AM

    Thank you.It was my most favorite Xmas present ever,and relished,as the only other gift that year was a Nun doll.Not a real cool toy,and when I undressed the nun doll,since I went to Catholic school.I say "oh gee whiz...this is just a baby girl doll with a different oufit."Do you know where I can possibl find a think a tron????,and thanks for the memories>Christa/New Jersey

  5. I received one of these for Christmas in 1962. Brought it to school (5th grade) for show and tell in early January. Classmates were duly impressed with my demonstration. I remember one question had something to do with "Thailand" and when I read it, pronounced it with the "th" sound as in "think" and the "ai" sound as in "aim". My teacher, Mrs. Aicardi, just smiled and gently corrected my pronunciation. The school I attended was named Thayerlands, so you might understand my fifth-grade error. I learned more that day than only what the Think-A-Tron had to offer, and have never forgotten the toy, the event, the country, or the teacher.

  6. Blinky the Tree Frog11:46 AM

    << I hope someone has one of these things safely displayed in a museum somewhere >>

    I can happily tell you that there is indeed a Think-A-Tron in a museum; the Science Musuem in London, in fact! I came across this post while looking for info on it after seeing it on display. Clearly you are not the only one to see its awesomeness :-).

  7. When I was a youngster, on my birthday my parents took me to the toystore to select my gift. My mom was not particular about my selection. However, my dad persuaded me to select an "educational" toy. Lo and behold, there was the Thinkatron. It was wonderful. I loved the idea of placing cards in the slot, turning the crank and watching the display verify my answer. Happily, I still maintain that degree of inquisitiveness derived from interaction with this exquisite device. It's nice to know that a fellow nerdy kid like me had one, too.

  8. Anonymous10:50 PM

    I really enjoyed reading this since I still have the Think-A-Tron and its box that I got for Christmas as an eight-year-old. It's packed in a box, I know where the box is, and I've been contemplating selling it for money, since, well, times are tough. But this article makes me reconsider; perhaps something else for the selling pile and not this, at least not yet. At least not until batteries are put in and the crank is turned again and again and yet again.

  9. Anonymous12:15 AM

    I received a Think-a-Tron as a kid and I have tought about it my entire life. It was a wonderful and thoughtful gift from my aunt when I was eight or nine years old. It was a great toy and a reflection of that entire time period. I wish I still had it.

  10. Anonymous7:17 PM

    Hello I just bought one in perfect shape at a estate sale in W.N.Y.Will give it a try tonight.Paid 22.50 for it.Treasure58

  11. Ytequeen@google.com2:39 PM

    I have one and loved it from the moment I opened that box under the tree. I was ten yrs old.

  12. Anonymous9:23 AM

    I need a new bulb for the think-a-tron, but have no idea where to get one or the type of bulb to get. Can anyone help?

  13. Anonymous10:18 AM

    I need a new light bulb for a think-a-tron but have no idea where to go to get one. any ideas?