The development of toy computers for kids parallels that of actual computing systems for grown-ups. Let's explore some of the modifications that the interactive versions have experienced over the last 70 years.
Throughout human history, a familiar sight has persisted: when a mother engages in sweeping, her baby desires a tiny broom, and when a father drives a car, his son yearns for a miniature pedal car. Similarly, in the late 20th century, a new activity emerged for parents that their children wanted to imitate: using a computer. To meet this demand, the toy industry rose to the occasion and started producing miniature, fully functional replicas of larger computers that were suitable for kids. These toys kept pace with technological advancements, evolving from simple mechanical devices to fully-fledged electronic PCs. From the 1980s onward, they endeared themselves to parents by providing educational content, teaching basic subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic.
The accompanying slides showcase more than a dozen computers designed specifically for children and illustrate their evolution over the years. Due to space constraints, many examples had to be excluded, so we invite you to share your memories of educational computers in the comments section below after reading.
Wolverine Adding Machine (1941)
During the 1930s and 40s, the most accessible option for consumers seeking a mainstream commercial computer was a mechanical adding machine. Consequently, the Wolverine Supply Company of Pittsburgh developed an early tin toy adding machine that could calculate numbers up to 9999.
Edmund C. Berkeley Geniac (1955)
In the 1950s, computers captured the attention of the American public. Clever companies soon devised ways to downsize the "electric brain" experience and make it available for home use in the form of kits. One of the pioneering kits was the Geniac, which hit the market in 1955 at a modest price of $20 (approximately $167 in today's currency).
The Geniac kit included a wooden frame and six predrilled Masonite discs functioning as rotary switches. Users programmed the computer by wiring these switches in specific configurations and then provided input by adjusting the positions of the discs. If the program was correctly set up, the results would be displayed through a series of miniature light bulbs. Remarkably, the Geniac could even play an unbeatable game of Tic-Tac-Toe when wired accurately.
E.S.R. Digi-Comp I (1963)
Back in 1963, the Digi-Comp I was an impressive all-mechanical digital computer constructed from plastic components, capable of performing Boolean logic operations on a three-digit binary number. And the best part? It could be yours for just $5 at the time.
To operate the Digi-Comp, users would program it to execute basic logical tasks like addition and subtraction. This was achieved by positioning plastic cylinders at specific points on three plastic flip-flop platforms. By manually sliding a plastic plate in and out, users could perform operations and observe the results on the three-digit counter located on the left side of the unit.
The Digi-Comp I gained widespread popularity, and even now, in recent times, Minds-On Toys has released a fully functional cardboard reproduction of the unit that is available for purchase today.
Science Fair Digital Computer Kit (1977)
In the mid-1970s, the concept of using a home computer involved building and programming the machine oneself. During this time, educational computers like the Science Fair Digital Computer Kit served a purpose. Devoid of any true electronic components, users programmed this enigmatic kit by attaching wires to various spring posts and flipping switches to create basic digital logic gates.
When the user pressed a button on the console, electric current flowed through the wires, displaying results on a row of lamps above. By following the provided booklet, users could configure the kit to solve simple logic puzzles, like transporting a farmer, a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river without any item being eaten. The fundamental operation was simple in theory but quite complex to set up in practice, likely leading to some frustrations for kids on post-Bicentennial Christmas mornings.
Mattel Children’s Discovery System (1981)
In contrast, the Children's Discovery System emerged as one of the first fully electronic computers designed explicitly for kids. It utilized interchangeable ROM cartridges to load software and presented output on an impressive 16-by-48-pixel LCD screen. A variety of 18 expansion cartridges covering subjects such as math, science, language, and history were available. Each cartridge included an overlay that fit over the Discovery System's keyboard, customizing the experience for each subject.
The Discovery System received positive reviews from the press in the early 1980s, sparking the initial wave of all-in-one electronic educational computers that didn't necessitate programming or assembly.
Sears Talking Computron (1986)
During the first half of the 1980s, a range of uncomplicated toy computers emerged, notably the VTL Computron and the Sears Talkatron Learning Computer, which were prominently featured in the annual Sears Wish Book catalog.
Sears continued this trend with the release of the Sears Talking Computron, shown here, which built upon its predecessors' features by offering additional built-in activities and improved voice synthesis. The Talking Computron also utilized software from separate cartridge-based expansion modules, each sold separately.
More Kid Computers of the 1980s
The middle to late 1980s witnessed a surge in educational computer toys for kids, known as ELAs or "electronic learning aids" in industry terms. VTech, an electronics company, emerged as the leading producer, offering a wide variety of these machines. Here are four units available at the time, three of which were made by VTech:
Connor ComputerSmarts (1987, upper-left): Paired with videos on VHS tapes, this device taught kids the basics of math and spelling.
VTech Smart Start (1987, upper-right): Included a printed activity booklet that covered similar educational content.
VTech Learning Window (1985, lower-right): Utilizing a graphically lush dot-matrix LED screen for the time, it taught spelling and math through animations.
VTech Type-right (1986, lower-left): Focused on teaching typing skills with the assistance of an instructional audio tape.
VTech Precomputer 1000 (1988)
In 1988, VTech launched what became one of the most popular learning computers of the 1980s and 1990s, the Precomputer 1000. This educational device featured a 20-character, one-line LCD display, which, though not as robust as a full-fledged computer, was flexible enough to run the system's built-in educational software. The software included touch-typing instruction, trivia games covering various subjects like history and science, math quizzes, and word games. Remarkably, the machine also came with a fully functional version of the BASIC programming language, although any programs created were lost when the unit was turned off.
With a full-size keyboard, long battery life, and a rugged case featuring a built-in handle, the Precomputer 1000 became a classic that inspired a generation of young programmers.
VTech I.Q. Unlimited Computer (1989)
Over the years, VTech introduced several upgraded models, such as the Precomputer 2000, Junior, and the Power Pad laptop. However, their most ambitious learning computer emerged just a year after the PC 1000.
The I.Q. Unlimited Computer, like the PC 1000, came with a one-line LCD but offered the additional feature of connecting to a much more impressive display: a color TV set. When connected to a TV or monitor, kids could engage in word processing, create spreadsheets and graphs, build databases, draw pictures, and play built-in educational games. The I.Q. allowed users to save their work in the unit's battery-backed memory or on removable RAM cartridges, and it also offered BASIC programming and the ability to print documents through a standard printer port.
Despite its ambition, the I.Q. didn't achieve the same level of success as the Precomputer 1000 and failed to spawn a host of imitators. Perhaps it came too close to resembling "real computers" for kids. This experience seemed to establish an upper limit on how capable a learning computer could be, a limit that manufacturers of educational computers appear to respect even today.
VTech Super Color Whiz (1994)
In the early 1990s, VTech introduced the Precomputer Power Pad, one of the first learning computers in laptop form. It featured a small and affordable LCD screen surrounded by a plastic casing on the laptop's lid. Taking this design further, the 1994 VTech Super Color Whiz added a splash of color to the LCD display, a novelty for children's toys during that time. Throughout the 1990s, VTech and other companies experimented with various laptop-like kids' computers, leading to the decline of the traditional "desktop" kids' computer design. During this period, VTech shifted away from including the BASIC programming language in its toy computers and focused instead on using pre-installed educational software.
Tiger Learning Computer (1997)
Around the time VTech stopped incorporating BASIC in its line of kids' computers, Tiger introduced a machine that revolved around BASIC. The Tiger Learning Computer (TLC) employed hardware based on the renowned Apple IIe computer from 1983, which Tiger licensed from Apple. The TLC booted into a custom graphical desktop screen, enabling users to run software from six included cartridges. These cartridges included an AppleWorks 4.3 word processor, some vintage Apple II educational titles commonly found in schools, and a RAM cartridge for storing user-generated data.
Despite the promising concept, the TLC's execution proved inconsistent and confusing. Different companies had programmed the included software for a machine that had been released more than a decade earlier, leading to mixed results. As a result, the TLC never advanced beyond test marketing in select U.S. cities, and its rarity has grown over time.
LeapFrog ClickStart: My First Computer (2007)
In the decade following the Tiger Learning Computer, the majority of kids' computers took after the VTech Super Color Whiz, with numerous variations in case design, often featuring licensed properties like Barbie or Disney. These computers became increasingly affordable. Some companies developed educational systems that served as accessories for generic Windows PCs, while others shifted towards creating kids' handheld game consoles and toys resembling PDAs, reflecting changes in technology.
However, in 2007, LeapFrog broke away from these trends with the introduction of the ClickStart, an educational computer system that harked back to older times by connecting directly to a TV set. Still in production and available for purchase, the ClickStart includes a base unit, a wireless keyboard, and a mouse, allowing children to engage with built-in and cartridge-based educational titles.
The Barbie-ization of Kids’ Computers
Today, there is a wide range of edutainment laptops available in various shapes and sizes, some of which are depicted here. For instance, the VTech Tote and Go Laptop (2007, left) is designed for toddlers and covers essential preschool topics like ABCs and numbers.
During the mid-2000s, manufacturers inadvertently entered a competition to create the pinkest, most feminine toy laptop. The Oregon Scientific Barbie B-Smart Laptop (2007, right) is a leading contender for this title.
Kidz Delight Datamax ii (2009)
Indeed, the landscape of computers has dramatically changed, thanks to the recent proliferation of smartphones and tablet devices like the iPad. Traditional bulky computers with keyboards are no longer the only option. Manufacturers, such as Kidz Delight, have adapted to this trend by catering to the new generation of children with keyboardless toy computer devices. The Datamax ii, featuring a sleek LCD screen and stylus input, continues to educate children in ways similar to kids' computers from decades past, but with modern improvements.
As the broader tech industry shifts away from traditional laptop and desktop computer designs, we can expect to see more kids' computers with nontraditional shapes and innovative features emerge in the years to come. The world of toy computers will undoubtedly follow the path of computer technology, evolving and adapting to meet the needs and interests of young learners.
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