This post was inspired by fellow blogger Michael Kuch, who asked his readers today to respond to a series of questions as a way to get to know each other. One of the questions was “Your Favorite Toy as a Child”. My kneejerk response was “Matchbox” toy cars, probably influenced by Michael’s answer of Hot Wheels. I’m not sure if it was just me, but I always sensed a bit of competition between Matchbox and Hot Wheels, and I was firmly in the Matchbox camp, having built up a decent size collection over the years.
(I also added “ball” to my response – kickball, baseball, football, basketball, superball, beachball – you name a ball, I probably had it.)
But as I thought more about the question, I tried to think of what other toys I played with, and then I remembered – Lectron.
I remember spending hours upon hours with this thing.
Odds are you have probably never seen or heard of this “toy”, which is pictured above.
Since I would not be able to do it justice, here’s a description from the September 1967 issue of Electronics Illustrated.
The Egger-Lectron Model 8400 learning aid is imported from Germany and will be distributed by the Macalaster Scientific Co. (a subsidiary of Raytheon), 186 Third Ave., Waltham, Mass., 02154. In this country they will be called electronic dominoes.
Just about anyone can put together an operating circuit as easily as they could play real dominoes. Each of the plastic boxes contains one or more electronic components or an interconnecting part. The kit supplied to us by Raytheon contains a carefully-selected collection of components, all neatly done up in plastic boxes bearing a schematic symbol of the contents, a manual of experiments and two work boards. Even a 9-year-old child can match the marked dominoes with those on the schematics to build and demonstrate a light meter, electronic thermometer, tone generator, or radio – to mention a few of the 90 experiments in the manual that accompanies the complete set. For the high school student, there are more advanced projects such as a three-transistor reflex-AM radio, metering circuits, transistor-testers, and simple computer flip-flops.
The three-transistor reflex-AM radio and several smaller circuits were put together in about an hour the first evening we worked with the set. And that included time for experimenting – which is at least half the fun of building the circuits. Of course, if you want to snap the boxes together really fast, give the circuit a quick test, then pull it apart and snap together another circuit. You could do eight or ten circuits in an hour.
The set we show here contains 108 plastic boxes. Sixty-five contain such components as resistors, capacitors, transistors (with and without a bias resistor), a meter, a relay, a thermistor, potentiometers, rheostats, RF transformer, speaker, push-button switches, diodes, variable capacitor, photocell and battery packs. Eight are blanks in which there are small contacts that accept the leads of resistors, capacitors, inductors or transistors for supplying values not included in the set. Jacked boxes will accept special inputs or test leads, for example. Other boxes contain connectors to join boxes to boxes or to ground a component to the work board.
How Does It All Work? In vaudeville, they used to say it was all done with mirrors. In Dominoes, it’s all done with magnets. Instead of using clips, binding posts, or springs to hold parts together, each box is equipped with small magnets at the points where it is to contact another box or the board. The sides and the bottom of each box are made of clear plastic so you can see what’s inside. The top of each box – carrying the schematic symbol – is opaque white.
Experiment No. 21 is about as simple as you could want. It consists of a bulb, battery, and switch in series. This is basic. In the next two experiments, you put resistors in series with battery and lamp to note the effect of adding resistance in the circuit. The lamp, of course, gets dimmer. From there the experiments go on through multivibrators, audio, photocell applications, relays, etc., ending with a burglar alarm.
Everybody who has seen the dominoes has found it hard to keep his hands off them. Their arrival in our New York office threatened to play havoc with production schedules, in fact, until some killjoy remembered that they had been designed for kids. So we sheepishly carted them off to a household that included a bright 14-year-old. He was delighted.
First project on the agenda was, of course, the AM radio circuit – even though that’s toward the back of the book. It worked and he was hooked. He and his father (who was also hooked by this time) were having a grand time trying circuit after circuit when the eight-year-old kid sister showed up and wanted to play, too. Now, this is not quite cricket, according to Raytheon, because the dominoes are geared to high-school instruction. Nothing daunted, she abandoned her numbered painting and pitched in.
… it does demonstrate the appeal of the dominoes. It’s hard to imagine any other means by which you could get across these basic concepts so quickly and so vividly. The fact that kids can put the parts in place themselves and see immediate results from their efforts beats fussing with Fahnestock clips and interconnecting wires all hollow – to say nothing of messing with soldering irons.
Homebodies may have reservations about the cost, however. A basic starter kit, the Mini Lectron, having pretty limited capabilities, is expected to sell for $19.50. While the way will be eased to bigger and better things by the availability of individual blister-packed add-on units, cost of a full set like the one we had will probably be $128. Two intermediate sets are also planned.
Still, considering the way the Lectron can put across ideas (even to our five-year-old, who corrected a mistake of his father’s after only ten minutes with the darn thing), it’s got to be one of the grandest educational toys, ever.
As I recall, my parents were generous enough to have bought me the entire kit, since I can still remember building that burglar alarm and radio, 50 years later! I never realized how much it cost; $128 is equivalent to close to $1,500 today! I also remember being able to do things like make the light bulb brighter or dimmer or the sound louder or softer.
The booklet made it quite easy to build the “experiments” since all you had to do was match how the various blocks connected with each other. After a while, I got to know what the difference was between resistors, capacitors, transistors, meters, relays, thermistors, potentiometers, rheostats, and diodes, as well as what symbol represented each type of component.
Once you had mastered all the projects in the booklet, one of the best things about Lectron was the ability to just make things up. Connect different devices together and see what would happen.
It was all you’d want out of a toy – entertaining and educational. I wouldn’t be surprised if part of my love for gadgets and technology wasn’t inspired by the time I spent with Lectron as a child.
I just hope I expressed my gratitude to my parents for such a wonderful gift; if not, I hope it’s not too late.
Thanks, Mom and Dad!
*image from Makezine