Sunday, September 24, 2017

The Think-A-Tron

Growing up, I don't recall ever making Christmas gift wish lists. I'm still slow to complete them, as my family will attest. I think this is because in my early years, my parents were just humdinger Christmas shoppers. We weren't a wealthy family, and during the year, we didn't exchange extravagant presents, but at Christmastime, my parents always amazed me with the gifts they found and gave me, many of which I did not know were on the market until I actually found them under the tree. One such toy was the Think-A-Tron. I received one for Christmas in 1962 and was immediately taken with it.

The toy had been developed by Hasbro and introduced onto the market sometime during the late years of the Eisenhower administration (an era which I actually remember, although that is material for another blog post). Anyway, the Think-A-Tron was something of a magical device. It consisted of a gray box resembling a computer punch card reader -- all computers used punch cards, or "Hollerith cards", at that time. The idea was that you slid a tiny punch card containing several questions (A/B/C or True/False) into a tray, then pushed the tray into the machine. Once the card had been fed, the machine would begin whirring, and a "digital" display would flash, finally settling on the letter of the correct answer.

This may all sound incredibly simple, but the Think-A-Tron came with about 500 punch cards, so running through them was a pretty good mental workout, and some of the questions were actually a bit challenging. They were all sourced from the Book of Knowledge, a popular children's encyclopedia at the time. and each card had questions printed on both the front and rear sides. One side contained the A/B/C question, the other the True/False question. Each card was pre-scored with paper dots which could be punched out to resemble a Hollerith card, but those dots weren't what actually controlled the Think-A-Tron; rather, a small notch on the side of each card determined which letter the toy would display. Once the player figured this out (and it wasn't readily apparent), determining the correct answer became something of a no-brainer. Still, the machine, with the commotion it created, was endlessly fun to watch, and I remember that most of the time, I purposely did not look at the notches so that I could test my answers.

The Think-A-Tron was my big present that year, and it was somewhat expensive for the time, ringing in at around $10.00. In today's currency, due to the calculated 713% rate of inflation since 1962, it would be worth about $81.00. In those days, people didn't get iPhones for Christmas; there were no credit cards, so things had to be bought with cash. Given that, I was eternally grateful to have received my Think-A-Tron, and I'm pretty sure that I stayed on my best behavior well throughout 1963 and maybe on into 1964.

Having worked in the information technology field since 1979, I'm wondering if that Think-A-Tron had anything to do with my eventual chosen profession -- I think it probably did. I remember the nights of studying for midterms and finals in college, memorizing those organic chemistry reactions, analyzing nervous system action potentials, trying to visualize objects in multidimensional calculus, that sort of thing. I was actually a serious pre-med student for most of my time at Northwestern. But it's interesting that in the end, what won out for me was a field I'd never considered, one for which my interest was most likely sparked at an early age by that clever little Think-A-Tron, with its two D batteries and its flashing lights. If I ever find one of these things in an antique shop, it's a done deal.

Note: Click here if you'd like to see a working demo of an actual Think-A-Tron.