Kids' Computers Through the Ages

The evolution of toy computers for children mirrors that of real-world systems for adults. We look at some of the changes the play-along versions have undergone in the past 70 years.

Toy Computers

It's a scene as old as humanity itself: If mommy sweeps, baby wants a tiny broom. If daddy drives an automobile, son wants a tiny pedal car. In the same vein, the late 20th century found parents performing an entirely new activity that kids wanted to imitate: using a computer. The toy industry took up the challenge and began churning out miniature, functional facsimiles of larger computers that were suitable for kids to use. These toys mirrored changes in technology over the decades, progressing from primitive mechanical devices to full-fledged electronic PCs. From the 1980s on, they often won their way into parents' hearts by providing educational instruction in basic subjects such as reading, writing, and arithmetic.

The slides that illustrate more than a dozen computers aimed directly at kids and depict how they evolved through the ages. Space constraints forced us to leave plenty out, so when you're done reading, feel free to share your memories of educational computers in the comments below.

Wolverine Adding Machine (1941)

In the 1930s and '40s, the closest that consumers could get to a mainstream commercial computer was a mechanical adding machine. Accordingly, Wolverine Supply Company of Pittsburgh created this early tin toy adding machine that could sum numbers up to 9999.

Photos: Computer History Museum

Edmund C. Berkeley Geniac (1955)

In the 1950s, computers entered the American consciousness in a big way. Enterprising companies soon found ways to scale down the "electric brain" experience and bring it to the home in kit form. The Geniac was one of the first kits to do so, retailing for a mere $20 in 1955 (that's about $167 in today's dollars).

The Geniac kit shipped with a wooden frame and a set of six predrilled Masonite discs that served as rotary switches. The user programmed the computer by wiring the switches in a certain way, and then gave the computer input by positioning the discs. Assuming that the program was set up correctly, the user would see the result flash on a series of miniature light bulbs. Believe it or not, the Geniac could play an unbeatable game of Tic-Tac-Toe if wired correctly.

Photo: Edmund C. Berkeley

E.S.R. Digi-Comp I (1963)

The Digi-Comp I was an entirely mechanical digital computer made from plastic parts that could perform Boolean logic operations on a three-digit binary number. And you could have it all for only $5 in 1963.

Users programmed the Digi-Comp to handle simple logical tasks such as addition and subtraction by positioning plastic cylinders at certain points on three plastic flip-flop platforms. Users would then manually slide a plastic plate in and out to perform operations, reading the results on the three-digit counter on the left side of the unit.

The Digi-Comp I was so popular that Minds-On Toys recently released a fully functional cardboard reproduction of the unit that you can buy today.

Photos: Minds-On Toys / E.S.R, Inc.

Science Fair Digital Computer Kit (1977)

In the mid-1970s, when using a home computer usually meant building and programming the machine yourself, an educational computer like the Science Fair Digital Computer Kit made sense. In the absence of any true electronic components, the user programmed the arcane kit by attaching wires to various spring posts and by flipping switches to form rudimentary digital logic gates.

When the user pushed a button on the console, electric current would flow through the wires in a way that would show a result on the row of lamps above. By following the included booklet, users could set up the kit to solve simple logic puzzles (including one that requires a farmer to transport a wolf, a goat, and a cabbage across a river without any of the items getting eaten). Its fundamental operation was simple in theory but very complicated to set up in practice, which probably frustrated many kids on post-Bicentennial Christmas mornings.

Photo: Radio Shack

Mattel Children's Discovery System (1981)

The Children's Discovery System was one of the first fully electronic computers aimed directly at kids. It loaded software from interchangeable ROM cartridges, and showed output on a fancy 16-by-48-pixel LCD screen. A total of 18 expansion cartridges were available on such traditional school topics as math, science, language, and history. Each cartridge came with its own overlay that would fit over the Discovery System's keyboard to customize each experience.

The Discovery System was well-received by the press in the early 1980s, and its success triggered the first wave of all-in-one electronic educational computers--ones that didn't require programming or assembly.

Photos: Mattel

Sears Talking Computron (1986)

The first half of the 1980s produced a number of simple toy computers, including the VTL Computron and the Sears Talkatron Learning Computer, both of which were marketed prominently through the annual Sears Wish Book catalog.

Sears followed up on those units with the Sears Talking Computron, shown here, which expanded on its predecessors' capabilities with additional built-in activities and better voice synthesis. The Talking Computron also ran software off of cartridge-based expansion modules--each sold separately.

Photo: Sears

More Kid Computers of the 1980s

The middle to late 1980s saw a boom of educational computer toys for kids, which were called ELAs or "electronic learning aids" in industryspeak. Electronics company VTech was the most prolific producer of these new machines and soon became the market leader. Shown here are four units (three of them made by VTech) available at the time.

The Connor ComputerSmarts (1987, upper-left) worked in conjunction with videos on VHS tape to teach kids basics of math and spelling. The VTech Smart Start (1987, upper right) came with a printed activity booklet that taught much of the same information. The VTech Learning Window (1985, lower right) taught kids spelling and math through animations on what was for the time a graphically lush dot-matrix LED screen. The VTech Type-right (1986, lower left) taught typing skills in conjunction with instruction from an audio tape.

Photos: Sears

VTech Precomputer 1000 (1988)

In 1988, VTech introduced what may have been the most popular learning computer of the 1980s and '90s. The Precomputer 1000 had a 20-character, one-line LCD display that, though limiting in comparison to a full-fledged computer, was flexible enough to run the system's built-in educational software, which included touch-typing instruction, trivia games on subjects like history and science, math quizzes, and word games. Most impressively, the machine included a fully functional version of the BASIC programming language (regrettably, you lost your programs when you turned off the unit).

Factor in a full-size keyboard, long battery life, and a rugged case with a built-in handle, and you have a classic that inspired a generation of very young programmers.

Photos: VTech/Benj Edwards

VTech I.Q. Unlimited Computer (1989)

Over the years, VTech followed up the Precomputer 1000 with various upgraded models like the Precomputer 2000, Junior, and even the Power Pad laptop. But the company's most ambitious learning computer emerged only one year after the PC 1000.

Like the PC 1000, the I.Q. Unlimited Computer shipped with a one-line LCD, but you could attach it to a much more impressive display: a color TV set. Once the I.Q. was hooked up to a TV or monitor, kids could do word processing, create spreadsheets and graphs, make databases(!), draw pictures, or play built-in educational games. The I.Q. permitted users to save their work in the unit's battery-backed memory or on removable RAM cartridges. The I.Q. also offered BASIC programming and the ability to print documents through a standard printer port.

This ambitious machine may have pushed kids' computers too close to the territory of "real computers". In any event, it wasn't as successful as the Precomputer 1000 and didn't spawn a host of imitators. In some ways, the IQ established the upper limit of how capable a learning computer could be--a limit that manufacturers of educational computers seem to observe to this day.

Photos: VTech

VTech Super Color Whiz (1994)

The VTech Precomputer Power Pad of the early 1990s was one of the first learning computers to be produced in laptop form. It included the now-obligatory tiny (and thus inexpensive) LCD screen framed by an ocean of plastic on the laptop's lid.

The 1994 VTech Super Color Whiz, shown here, took that design a step further by adding color to the LCD display, a novelty for a kids' toy of that time. VTech and other companies experimented with a wide array of laptop-like kids' computers throughout the 1990s, rendering the "desktop" kids' computer design more or less extinct. Simultaneously, VTech began removing BASIC functionality from its toy computers and instead focused on using canned educational software to do the teaching.

Photo: VTech

Tiger Learning Computer (1997)

Just when VTech stopped including the BASIC programming language in its line of kids' computers, Tiger came along with a machine that was built around BASIC. Curiously, the Tiger Learning Computer contained hardware based on the famous Apple IIe computer of 1983, whose design Tiger licensed from Apple. The TLC booted to a custom (non-Apple) graphical desktop screen that allowed the user to run software on six included cartridges. Software on the cartridges included an AppleWorks 4.3 word processor, some vintage Apple II educational titles that were commonly found in schools, and a RAM cartridge for storing user-generated data.

The TLC sounds great on paper; but in reality, the experience was inconsistent and confusing because different companies had programmed the included software for a machine that had been released more than a decade before. This may be why the unit never made it out of test marketing in select U.S. cities--and why it is so rare today.

Photos: Tiger

LeapFrog ClickStart: My First Computer (2007)

In the decade following the Tiger Learning Computer, most kids' computers resembled the VTech Super Color Whiz, albeit with dozens of drastic variations in case design (usually involving licensing from Barbie or Disney properties), while getting cheaper and cheaper. Companies also created educational systems that worked as accessories for a generic Windows PC, and then moved toward kids' handheld game consoles and PDA-imitating toys, which mirrored changing technology.

In 2007, LeapFrog bucked those trends by introducing the ClickStart, an educational computer system that hearkens back to the old days by hooking up directly to a TV set. Still being produced and sold, the system includes a base unit, and a wireless keyboard and mouse set through which a child can play both built-in and cartridge-based educational titles.

Photos: LeapFrog

The Barbie-ization of Kids' Computers

Today you can find a large range of edutainment laptops in every shape and size--among them the ones shown here. The VTech Tote and Go Laptop (2007, left) is designed for the toddler set and teaches all the usual "ABC and 123" preschool topics.

Around the mid-2000s, manufacturers unwittingly entered a race to see who could create the pinkest, most girly toy laptop ever. The Oregon Scientific Barbie B-Smart Laptop (2007, right) is a prime contender for the title.

Photos: VTech/Oregon Scientific

Kidz Delight Datamax ii (2009?)

As illustrated by the recent explosion in smartphones and tablet computers such as the iPad, computers aren't necessarily bulky devices with keyboards anymore. Manufacturers like Kidz Delight have followed that trend by catering to a new generation of children with keyboardless toy computer devices. The Datamax ii (yes, the lowercase I's are part of its name) educates in much the same way as kids' computers from decades past, though with a much nicer LCD screen and a stylus input.

As the broader tech industry moves away from laptop and desktop computer designs, you can expect more kids' computers with nontraditional shapes to pop up in the years ahead. For make no mistake: Wherever computer technology takes us, toy computers will follow.

Photo: Kidz Delight