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...