Building A 60s Toy The Way It Should Have Been

The original Hasbro “Think-a-Tron”, a toy from the dawn of the computer revolution, was billed with the slogan, “It thinks! It answers! It remembers!” It, of course, did only one of these things, but that didn’t stop the marketers of the day from crushing the hopes and dreams of budding computer scientists and their eager parents just to make a few bucks. It’s not like we’re bitter or anything — just saying.

In an effort to right past wrongs, [Michael Gardi] rebuilt the 1960s “thinking machine” toy with modern components. The original may not have lived up to the hype, but at least did a decent job of evoking the room-filling computers of the day is a plastic cabinet with a dot-matrix-like display. The toy uses “punch-cards” with printed trivia questions that are inserted into the machine to be answered. A disk with punched holes spins between a light bulb and the display lenses, while a clever linkage mechanism reads the position of a notch in the edge of the card and stops the wheel to display the letter of the correct answer.

[Michael]’s update to the Think-aTron incorporates what would have qualified as extraterrestrial technology had it appeared in the 1960s. A 35-LED matrix with a 3D-printed diffuser and case form the display, with trivia questions and their answer as a QR code standing in for the punch-cards.He also added a pair of user consoles, so players can lock-in and answer before an ESP32-Cam reads the QR code and displays the answer on the LED matrix, after playing some suitable “thinking music” through a speaker.

As usual with [Michael]’s retrocomputing recreations, the level of detail here is fantastic. We especially like the custom buttons; controls like these seem to be one of his specialties judging by his slide switches and his motorized rotary switch.

24 thoughts on “Building A 60s Toy The Way It Should Have Been

    1. Yeah the Sea Monkeys were a disappointment, same with the mail order clawed frog that had a bad habit of eating it’s fellow frogs. Get three and end up with one. One thing that did not disappoint me was mail order chemistry outfits that allowed us kids back in the late 70’s to roll our own fireworks.

      The Mattel Thing Maker was another odd one. Basically a hot plate and metal molds that your poured goop into to make various creatures and toy soldiers. Many a kid burned their hands with this toy. But it was pretty neat.

      1. I always wanted a Thingmaker.

        We had a Vac-U-Form instead. Small pieces of plastic, heated up, then pressed against a form and vacuum makes it tight. Interesting, but rubber toys were more appealing. It would take Thingmaker moulds, but somehow we only got one.

        In the internet age, I was surprised to find that the Vac-U-Form came first, then tye Thingmaker moukds, and then the Thingmaker machine. So we never had an inferior machine.

        1. I never knew that the Thingmaker molds would fit in a Vac-U-Form. I always thought Thingmaker was cooler, but never could get either one. I don’t know if you can get Plastigoop any more, but you can certainly still get sheets of styrene to put in the Vac-U-Form.

        2. I’ve never heard of these toys, I’m an 80s and 90s child. I wouldn’t have asked for such a toy anyway because I’d know that once the consumables were gone it would have been useless.

      2. My sister and I had a Thing Maker. We had a lot of fun with it, even though we did manage to burn ourselves. My father wasn’t impressed and showed us the scar on his leg from when he poured molten lead on himself while makingt lead figures when he was our age. We were saddened that we’d missed the era of being able to make our own lead-based things…

        1. LOL! My dad had molds for making lead cannons and soldiers and I don’t remember what else. He taught me to hold the molds over a candle flame to coat them with lamp black as a release agent. After we made some of these toys, we’d use them for target practice with a BB gun, which would leave visible dents on them.

          1. Another fine toy from AC Gilbert company and others. Plugs into household line and produces many fine lead products. Dont run out of lead or molds. Order more now! I do miss that. Nothing dangerous here. Smelt your own lead and squeeze into mold. Whats the problem?

          2. Ah, but the beauty of it is that the molds last a lifetime, and as the toy soldiers get beat up, you re-cast them, so you recover almost all of your lead as well. No further purchases necessary except propane or other fuel. Well, and lost BBs, as they are also reusable if you can recover them, and if you’re using a single-pump air BB gun, no consumables there, either.

          3. Not really a lifetime. Dependent on quality of plates and detail but mostly a very long time for actual steel plates(molds, dies). There were so many from different manufacturers at one time. Not only lead but some for lower temperature pewters and other amalgams. Pot metal gearset plates were pretty cool- and hot. Slugs for ammunition including BBs and pellets as well as literal ’rounds’ for black powder available as always.
            Really is the easiest form of casting.
            Seldom get an excuse to throw sand or invest.

        2. Prince August is a company in Ireland that still makes “moulds” for casting your own metal figures. They have some awesome fantasy chess sets and historical ones too! I’ve made some sets as gifts.

          I visited Ireland when I was … much younger… and still use the moulds. I have also done casting with my 10yr old niece in a relatively safe manner with proper safety equipment and supervision. Glasses, long sleeves and pants, close toed shoes and a bucket of ice water close by just in case.

      3. That brings back some memories for me from the 90’s. As a kid I had a Metal Molder that would make little figures like wizards or dragons by melting pellets of solder or something. It had a safety shield over the hot parts that wouldn’t unlock until it was cool enough to handle but I was impatient as a child and had figured out just the right place to put an ice cube to get it to open early.

    2. Ya, there may have been some disappointment among nerdier kids. But the original Think-a-Tron did ship with 300 trivia questions from The Book of Knowledge: The Children’s Encyclopedia. And for a small price you could order more. So I would argue that there is where the value lies

      1. “And for a small price you could order more. “…” that there is where the value lies”

        Yes, the value for the manufacturer to supply consumables, just like the fore mentioned “Thing Maker”!

      1. Did you do a filament swap to get the letter a different color? I did that for a learning clock I printed for my kids school. The contrast was very good. You’d need to print a lot of them in parallel so that the white had time to get replaced with the black in the melt chamber–or move the head aside and manually purge it. Buth worked well for me.

        Nice project.

          1. Cool. The printers I was using don’t have a display, so I don’t really have a way to put in pauses. I just had to sit there and wait for the right layer to start. I like your way better. :)

  1. It’s always nice to see that there are others here who got to experience the same toys and tech that I did. Doesn’t happen nearly enough outside of here! To quote a high school band student I once heard, “I have found my people, and they are you.”

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