February 1970 Popular Electronics
Table of Contents
Wax nostalgic about and learn from the history of early electronics. See articles
published October 1954 - April 1985. All copyrights are hereby acknowledged.
There's not a much better
way to wrap up a work week than to read through a short technohumor
(I just made up that word) novel by Carl Kohler or
John T. Frye. Reading a few
technocomics (another made-up word)
by various illustrators is a great resource, too. This story, which appeared in
a 1970 issue of Popular Electronics, is another episode in the life of
technotinkerer (a "Maker" in today's lingo) Kohler (who also drew a lot of the technocomics)
and his skeptical helpmeet (for good reason) 'Friend-Wife,' as he unveils his repurposed
homebuilt UNIversity computer.
Other Carl Kohler masterpieces: "The
Great Electron-Pedantic Project," "Dig That Reel Flat Response,"
a Superheterodyne," "Unpopular Electronics,"
"Thin Air, My Foot,"
"High Tide in the
R/C Cloud," "Hi-Fi Guest List,"
," "Boner Box," and "McWatts."
The Great Electron-Pedantic Project
By Carl Kohler
I almost made it.
Sneaking from the car to the workshack, my arms loaded with stacks of books borrowed
from the public library, I was doing just fine until one of the larger, heavier
tomes toppled - hitting the pavement with an echoing smack.
Friend Wife, Peggy, immediately peered out the back door, hearing the sound and
spotting me going tippy-toe lugging the books. She came through that doorway and
was upon me before I could stagger another step. So I stood stock-still, deciding
to play it totally cool.
"What's with all the books?" she demanded.
"Going to do a little reading," I murmured from behind the wavering stacks I
was balancing. "Just going to do a little reading, that's all."
Her face appeared around one of the unstable
stacks, sheer disbelief gleaming in her eyes, complete suspicion quirking her mouth.
I stared back with what I hoped was the most innocent and appealing expression this
side of that overweight infant on the baby food tins.
"You always do your reading in the house," she said flatly. "How come you aren't
bringing them into the house?"
"Uh ... not this time."
"What are they - dirty novels?"
"Certainly not!" My voice trembled with indignation. "Why, these represent some
of the most profound concepts that the finest minds of mankind ever sustained long
enough to put on paper!"
"Oh, yeah?" her eyes roved over several titles. "Hmmmm. They look dull enough
to be as high-brow as you claim. First Principles - " she read aloud, "Abstract
Mathematics - History Of Philosophy - Grey's Anatomy - The Natural Sciences - Profiles
of Classical Artists." She glanced at me with a tight little smirk. "Isn't all this
stuff slightly over your head? I always figured you were more a 'MAD' magazine buff!"
I sighed. A long, shuddering sigh of defeat.
"All right," I muttered dully. "Tote some coffee out to the workshack and I'll
wire you in to the whole plan. You'll find out sooner or later, anyway."
While she went sprinting away to bring the requested brew, I carried the teetering
towers of books into the workshack, letting them spill to the floor. Restacking
them neatly alongside all the other books earlier sorties had produced, I bitterly
meditated upon my fond and chronic illusion of secrecy. Sometimes I actually managed
to bring a project pretty well along before she chanced upon it. Once, I even came
within twenty minutes of completing a project in delicious secrecy. But a malicious
fate sent her blundering into the workshack while I was still bolting a chassis
in to its casing.
"Ah, well," I sighed again. "At least I'm gifted with a glorious verbal -defensive
ability. Things could be worse. I could be slow-spoken. Or have the handicap of
She waltzed into the workshack, holding the tray skillfully aloft. It bore a
pot of coffee and two cups. She lowered it with a flourish, not spilling a drop.
"Exhibitionist!" I sneered.
"Now," she chirped brightly, "tell me all about what's going on! Why you're suddenly
bringing books in here by the ton."
I gestured at the books. "Those gems of knowledge," as I gestured again at the
nearby object covered with a dust-sheet, "are to be fed painstakingly and efficiently
into that veritable jewel box of scintillating information."
Her face followed my gestures, swinging back and forth with an expression of
"Let's have that again ?" she giggled.
I inhaled deeply enough to get slightly dizzy with the intake of oxygen. "Here
we go again," I thought tensely, "all my defensive resources gathering against the
onslaught I knew was coming. If she doesn't recognize the instrument immediately,
one of us is slipping."
I yanked the dust-sheet from the computer.
"I'm going to feed the contents of those books and more into the memory banks
of this sensitive, superbly conceived and constructed instrument." My chin went
a trifle higher. "In short, sister, I intend to transfer all known facts and theories
and reasoning into this newly modified digital computer."
Recognition oozed over her face as she stared transfixed with happy derision
at the bulk of the computer which had been disconnected and hidden from the world
for a long, long time. But not long enough for her to forget what it had been when
I originally built it.
"Ooh, I know that crazy gismo!" she trilled. "Sure! That's the nutty thingamuhcallit
you were so positive was going to make us wealthy beyond our wildest dreams because
it would be able to analyze the future! Or something like that!"
I nodded grimly, pouring scalding-hot coffee down a throat constricted with humiliation.
"Go ahead," I thought glumly. "Go ahead and get every last grain of salt into the
wound! Really squeeze it for all it's worth. Have a ball!"
She spewed merry laughter all over me, the books, and the computer. "Oh, I never
thought you'd ever have the gall to bring that costly flop out of hiding!"
"It's not the same instrument," I murmured softly. "Not the same at all. Been
modified. Brought up to date. Completely redesigned, except for the housing, to
do something entirely different. Something practical. Functional. Patriotic even."
"Oh, go ahead and make it clack out that wonderful 'Cross my palm with silver
line!' Please make it do that again! The last time I laughed until I thought I'd
split! All that hokey science talk - about a gadget that turned out to be nothing
more than a greedy, metal Gypsy fortune-teller!"
Bile rose to meet the descending scorch of the coffee. I swallowed with difficulty.
"It simply can't do that again!" I desperately assured her. "The whole computer
has been revamped and rewired. Wholly new circuits. Integrated circuits that give
it a brand new purpose. A splendid function that - scoff if you like - could just
very well make me a most wealthy man, at least, and possibly even save the country
from a generation of imbeciles, cretins and savages!"
I patted the dully gleaming casing of the computer fondly. "UNIversity, here,
will replace all archaic notions of formal education."
"What are they - dirty novels?" she asked, as the stack began to waver.
"UNIversity. That's its name and its purpose! To be a complete university! Why,
the impact of this advance in the educational field will probably be felt around
"Certainly! By merely replacing the old fashioned college campus - that has proved
to be so terribly vulnerable to student violence - UNIversity will enable serious,
ambitious students to achieve a full and enriched formal education without being
subjected to the vagaries and disruptions currently found on university campuses
"Wait a minute!" she protested, jerking a thumb at the computer. "Are you trying
to tell me that this reformed gypsy is going to dispense education ?"
Head held high, nostrils flared with pride, I looked down my nose at her, but
smilingly, and I accorded her a brief nod. A firm, confident nod.
"How?" she demanded.
"Simplicity itself. Once I demonstrate this prototype model to colleges and universities
- showing how the best minds of all eras have been locked within its memory banks,
how every possible subject is completely recorded, how the arts, the sciences, business,
the humanities and even theoretical research in every imaginable field have been
captured, needing only selective operation to deliver as fine an education as has
ever been available anywhere - those higher institutions of learning will beg to
buy them in carload lots. Educational history will be made! The serious students
will be assigned one instrument to an individual or perhaps even a small class.
No longer will there be a need for huge campuses, expensive buildings and the fantastic
overhead necessary to maintaining a full university!"
"You gonna give 'em away?"
A sly smile played about my mouth which had gone thin-lipped with resolution.
"Absolutely not. I'll lease hundreds of thousands of UNIversities. Oh, the jolly
profits will flood in! I'll be a multi-millionaire many times over!" I tweaked her
cheek roguishly. "I may even spend a few dollars on you!"
"Where's all these millions coming from ?"
I shook my head sadly at her. "Don't you know that almost every university in
the country receives Federal aid as well as state and private funds? No need to
worry about the money! It'll pour into the coffers of UNIversities, Unlimited in
torrents of fat, lovely sums. I may even have to buy one of the smaller foreign
countries for a tax write-off!" I yawned elaborately. "Why, there will probably
be millions in gratitude gifts from the parents of UNIversity-taught pupils who
have saved considerable sums of money by not having their children write asking
for money from distant campuses!"
"How do you figure that?"
"Easy. UNIversity can be installed and operated just as efficiently in the home
as anywhere else." I assumed a humble posture. "Think of all the innocent youth
who will be spared the riotous living and sinful ways of dwelling far from their
native hearths. Yes, I can see a definite moral fiber in this plan. The world will
eventually get around to bestowing its honors upon UNIversity and me for bringing
back a stout moral tenor to its precious younger generations."
She stared hard at me. "You really believe all this guff you been handing me
I cleared my throat, ignoring the jibe.
"You'll have to excuse me now. I must contact all of the electronics schools
and institutes, and the trade schools, of course. Mustn't delete any form of knowledge
once I begin programming it into the instrument. I may even include some frivolities
for comic relief. Just for balance, you understand!"
"Yeah," she yawped, heading for the doorway. "I knew you'd dream up an excuse
to read a few issues of "MAD" into that screwy machine!"
"Not a bit," I retorted, drawing myself up with frosty dignity. "Actually, I
was thinking of something with more humor - such as the Congressional Record or
the minutes from a few meetings of the D.A.R. This is a class operation, y'know!"
"Puns yet!" she wailed, departing swiftly.
The months that followed were exhausting ones as I proceeded to work my way methodically
through subject after subject - basing my programming upon standard college texts
- until I'd concisely read hundreds of books, pamphlets, essays and technical papers
aloud into UNIversity who smoothly filed all the material away into its memory banks,
diverting it according to classification with my help at the master control panel.
Finally, I realized this was a somewhat larger task than I had originally estimated.
Even so, I figured it was about time to make a demanding test of UNIversity - to
find out if it could indeed give information - both literally and analytically -
when selected playbacks were delved from its memory banks. This being a rather awesome
moment, I felt the need for company, graciously inviting Friend Wife to be a witness
at the first lectures and seminars delivered by my brainchild.
"Well, this is it!" I announced in a voice hoarse and thickened from hours of
reading educational facts into the computer aloud. "How would you like the honor
of selecting a test subject ?"
"It ain't gonna work anyways," she stated sourly. "None of your gadgets do what
they're supposed to do. So I guess it don't matter what I pick, huh?"
I favored her with a tired, condescending smile that made a shambles of her jibe.
"Just choose a subject - any subject," I suggested patiently. "Never mind all
the sunshiny thoughts and utterly blind faith in my meager genius."
She thought intensely, her face working with the effort of her mental straining.
"Okay, have it tell me all about Mars!"
"The mythological god or the planet?" "Huh ?"
"Let it pass. I assume you mean the planet Mars."
"That's what I said!"
I sighed. "So you did, and that's what you shall have -a comprehensive lecture
upon every known aspect of that red and mysterious planet!" Deftly making a few
simple adjustments upon the Master Control Panel, UNIversity glowed into activity
- muted bleepings, minor clickings and sequences of flashing lights indicating that
the instrument was ready to function.
"How come it ain't going clack-clack-clack and popping out those little pieces
of paper?" she asked, nervously stepping back from the light patterns now sparkling
madly across the computer's trace-board. "It looks like it's gonna blow-up!"
"Relax. This baby is a far cry indeed from that admittedly crude and ineffectual
item that preceded it." I peered intently at the Control Panel, making several more
corrections with the cold mien of the true scientist, murmuring incoherently to
myself for added dramatic impact. "Actually, UNIversity not only absorbs facts but
has been designed to draw meaningful conclusions from all programmed data. Additionally,
UNIversity can recognize human voice patterns."
"Well, each of the kids has a differing mental capacity. I figured if UNIversity
could instantly recognize each kid by his or her voice, it could immediately channel
a vocabulary understandable to each child's mental-level - and I had the foresight
to program all data in various age-range vocabularies which was a chore mildly comparable
to inscribing a decade of income tax information on the head of a very small pin."
"Listen!" I roared, "I demand that you select college level delivery of data
pertaining to Mars!"
"Gee!" she said in an awed tone.
"Then, this thingie is really pretty smart, huh?"
"Not really but almost."
"I AM READY," announced UNIversity in a cultured tone with undeniably refined
accents. "KINDLY GIVE YOUR CHRONOLOGICAL AGE AND PRESENT GRADE IN SCHOOL."
"Holy Solid State!" whispered Friend Wife. "It talks real classy yet!"
"Odd," I muttered. "Doesn't sound like me but I distinctly recall - oh, well,
perhaps I'm too tired to recognize my own recorded voice. Possibly some of that
economy priced tape accounts for the tonal difference."
"Go ahead-talk back to it!" she urged delightedly.
"My age is forty-five. I no longer attend any institution of learning, having
"SUBJECT DESIRED?" invited UNIversity smoothly.
"Uh - the planet Mars," I stated. "MARS IS A PLANET. MARS IS IN SPACE.
SEE THE PRETTY RED PLANET IN SPACE. SEE THE PRETTY RED PLANET IN ORBIT! ORBIT,
There was a terrible moment of silence. "What the old heck is happening here?"
I croaked, frantically checking everything and finding nothing wrong. "I just cannot
"I knew it!" she howled merrily. "I just knew that crazy pile of blabber-mouthy
parts would hassle you! Oh, this is marvy! Your brain of a machine reading primer-level
facts to you!"
"MARS IS FAR, FAR AWAY," droned UNIversity in clipped precision. "MARS IS TOO
I snapped a recycling-switch, cutting into the taped dissertation and bringing
the instrument back to "Initial Communication."
"KINDLY GIVE YOUR CHRONOLOGICAL AGE AND -"
"Listen!" I roared. "I demand that you select college level delivery of data
pertaining to Mars! I may be only a high school graduate but I read a lot and I've
programmed enough material into -"
"YOU DO NOT QUALIFY FOR COLLEGE-LEVEL-DATA," it informed me flatly. "HOWEVER,
A SUGGESTED ALTERNATIVE IS OBTAINING A MINIMUM OF FOUR YEARS AT ANY ACCREDITED -"
That's when I pulled the plug.
"Can't understand it!" I stared dazedly at my happily smirking wife. "I was so
careful! Why, I even included each of the kids' voice-patterns and a plethora of
essential statistics that should have prevented anything like this from -"
"I was sure wrong about this thingamajig!" she yawped joyously.
"Wrong? In what way?"
"It can't be all bad," she gasped, between disgusting fits of vulgar laughter,
"if it's smarter than you - and it is!"
She was still shrieking with nauseating hilarity when I sulked away to consult
a dictionary. I doubted that I would find the word 'overteach' in it, having just
contributed that nefarious term to the English language in the form of an academically
snobbish computer. But I thought I'd look anyway.
Posted June 16, 2017