Gift Idea From 1969: A Kitchen Computer

The end of the year is often a time for people to exchange presents and — of course — the rich want to buy each other the best presents. The Neiman Marcus company was famous for having a catalog of gift ideas. Many were what you’d consider normal gifts, but there were usually extreme ones, like a tank trunk filled with 100,000 gallons of cologne. One year, the strange gift was an authentic Chinese junk complete with sails and teak decks. They apparently sold three at $11,500 (in 1962 money, no less). Over the top? In 1969, they featured a kitchen computer.

Wait a minute! In 1969, computers were the purview of big companies, universities, and NASA, right? Well, not really. By that time, some industrial minicomputers were not millions of dollars but were still many thousands of dollars. The price in the catalog for the kitchen computer was $10,600. That’s about $86,000 in today’s money. The actual machine was a Honeywell 316, based on one of the computers that helped run the early Internet.

It isn’t entirely clear if the company really thought they would sell one and — as far as anyone can tell — they didn’t. The machine came with a two-week training class to learn how to program the machine and with no real screen, we aren’t entirely clear how it worked. According to

The computer used binary code, so if Mom wanted to plan a dinner around some nice steak that she had just bought, she would need to enter the binary code for steak:


And even if she managed to do that correctly, the output from the computer was displayed as a series of lights that “spelled out” the answer in binary code. Imagine eight small lights in a row and if they were on it would be read as a “1” and if it were off it would be read as a “0”. There is mention of a teletype machine that had a typewriter keyboard and would make the interface easier but that doesn’t seem to be included in price of the computer.

User Guide

Best guess? We think you keyed in some recipe ID number and how many servings you wanted. Then the computer would give you codes for each ingredient and the quantity: 1/4 cup per serving times 6 servings would somehow tell you 1 1/2 cups.

Hardware-wise, the over-100-pound machine used 16-bit words and had 72 instructions. The machine has 4 KB of magnetic core expandable to 16 KB and ran at a respectable 2.5 MHz. There isn’t much information about the actual machine, although plenty can be found about the actual H316. But you could tell it was a kitchen computer. Why? Because it included a built-in cutting board, something a stock H316 probably couldn’t claim. You can see the only known version that lives at the Computer History Museum in the video below.

A Solution in Search of

It is hard to remember, but in those days and all the way up until sometime in the 1980s, we all predicted that computers would be in people’s homes. We just couldn’t agree on what they were going to do. Tracking recipes was a common suggestion. So was balancing a checkbook, something few people seem to do anymore. Programs like Visicalc and Wordstar sold businesses on computers, but the real killer application for people wound up being communicating with other people and businesses via the network. Sure, gaming, digital photography, digital video, and digital music also became popular, but remember that it has been fairly recently that personal computers have had the storage and horsepower to do a good job at many of those things.

Even today, though, most people don’t have a permanent computer in the kitchen for cooking. Sure, there are probably a few microcontrollers in your appliances. You might use a tablet, a phone, or a laptop to look up a recipe. But the idea of a recipe computer never really caught on.

Let’s face it, early computers didn’t look like they do now, even if they were personal. Ditto for what used to pass for a laptop.

51 thoughts on “Gift Idea From 1969: A Kitchen Computer

      1. We laugh because the Chinese don’t have the social culture to adopt good quality control measures. There’s no incentive to do so under “democratic centralism” employed by the communist system.

        First, there’s no free competition in a command economy. Secondly, the structure of the system means that people down the hierarchical ladder cannot point out faults or flaws in the works because it would “embarrass” their superiors, who in turn try to pin any faults on the people beneath for not following their orders correctly, or even “sabotaging” the business. It’s just a game of passing the blame around to avoid facing the consequences. Everyone I’ve talked with, who have worked in China and also in Russia and other present and ex communist states say it’s the same culture all over. The boss is the king, and the boss of the boss is god, and you just do exactly as you’re told and don’t question it or YOU get blamed for everything.

        So people just give up and go through the motions, however ridiculous they may be. They may know very well that they’re making a mess of it, but it’s not their responsibility and not their problem.

        1. In all fairness, I think it’s more complex than that, because in Japan there is also strongly hierachical thinking. Mistakes made in the Fukushima disaster were also blamed for the obedience mindset and having to face difficulties if speaking up.

          Also while it might not be as bad in the West, the tendency to punish people deviating from the norm is increasing, alarmingly.

          1. The impoverished history of China has resulted in a thief culture which persists. IP theft, counterfeit items, zero truth in advertising, and no product quality control affects not just us, but anyone living in China. Note the nutrient free baby formula scandal there, but that’s an example of one that hit the news in China AND the international news, so the person responsible for that was executed. There are no repercussions for less drastic frauds. A popular YouTuber who got his start living in China tells of the time he and a friend were poisoned by a counterfeit “imported” alcohol product bought off the shelf in a liquor store. They poison their own people.

            JOURNAL OF CHINESE ECONOMICS, 2014 Vol. 2. No. 2, pp 73-78
            Call for Copy – The Culture of Counterfeit in China

            Abstract: The aim of this paper is to deepen the understanding of Chinese counterfeit phenomenon by exploring the effect of culture. Counterfeit activities are shaped by Chinese historical, social and political reasons. Intellectual property rights protections don’t have an obvious presence on Chinese soil. The discussion of counterfeit consumer behavior research via the effect of culture is provided.


            To Steal a Book Is an Elegant Offense: Intellectual Property Law in Chinese Civilization (Studies in East Asian Law, Harvard University) – 1997

        2. Chinese products made for export used to be universally bad. Eventually, companies in other countries, having Chinese factories produce their wares, figured out that The Chinese were capable of, and willing to produce, whatever quality of product the buyer is willing to pay for. I used to have a couple of small 7″ metal lathes made in China. One was IRRC serial #346 imported by Grizzly. Possibly from the first batch they imported. It had many problems, compounded by abuse from previous owners. It needed a lot of help from the day it was packed up for shipping. The other one was many years newer and ready to go right out of the box, didn’t need any fixes to make it usable.

          It’s been quite a while since I’ve had a Chinese made hand tool fail. Harbor Freight made them up their quality a lot. So did American brands that shut down production here to have tools made in China. The usual 1980’s Chinese junk was no longer acceptable, just as cheap Japanese products of the 50’s and 60’s had to become the good quality Japanese products of the 70’s and 80’s.

          There’s a person having a Chinese engine factory making modernized Ford Model A engine blocks, crankshafts, connecting rods, camshafts, heads and some other parts. The Chinese questioned why he wanted to make a new side valve, flat head engine, wouldn’t he rather adapt one of their new designs? Oh well, whatever the customer is paying for, they’ll make, and make it as good as the customer wants. The outside is identical to the original but inside it has five main bearings instead of three on the crank and cam. That required a new connecting rod design. Deficiencies in oiling and cooling were fixed and it can be fitted with full pressure oiling. Original style three bearing camshafts can be used by plugging the passages to bearing journals 2 and 4. Built up stock the new engine gives a new, reliable, life to an old Model A. The upgrades enable building up an engine capable of producing considerably more power than the best that could ever be done to any original.

          1. There’s a cat and mouse game with QC where they will make everything worse until the customer complains. Basically, they won’t do any control unless you force them to, and if you don’t say anything or check up on them regularly, they’ll just keep on cutting more corners, using worn-out tools, not measuring dimensions for tolerances etc. etc.

            The first batch will be up to spec. The rest, good luck.

        3. Claiming the chinese dont have quality control issues is honestly narrowminded. The reason we get chinese junk is caused by the simple fact that most buyers dont want to pay the premium for proper quality control. The chinese are perfectly capable of producing high quality products, the price will also be high, marginalizing profit. You get what you pay for, very much true in China.

      1. That’s one kind of loop, but a “recipe” anything only works if one knows what they have. And most people aren’t that diligent with their inventory. Maybe if grocery receipts were in a form for machine reading that would help by leveraging other people’s effort (OPE).

  1. It’s still getting publicity over fifty years later.

    I think the point was to draw attention. If someone really wanted the computer, they’d supply it, but it wasn’t likely. But people talked about it.

    It was that year that I decided I wanted my own computer.

    1. The “Kitchen computer” is a category that pops up from time to time when corporations try to invent a new product to push – like clockwork every few years – because whenever the old product design team retires or quits one by one, new people are brought in, eventually nobody remembers the bad ideas that didn’t sell.

      Then someone thinks of the obvious: “Hey, what if we sold a computer for the kitchen, you know, for housewives to look up recipes and stuff like that – brilliant idea! Why isn’t this already on the market?”

      It’s only the format that changes. In the 90’s they were weird looking java terminals, in the 00’s they were integrated into your fridge, in the 2010’s it was a tablet computer stuffed in a breadbox. Let’s see what new format they’ll pull off this decade – holographic projectors?

        1. Don’t forget, it has to be built to a very low price point, such that the hardware is not capable of cashing in the promises of the software and it ends up unresponsive and difficult to use. It has to take at least a minute to boot up, and you shouldn’t be able to use any common software or apps – only a locked down version of an obscure web browser that is never updated. The display resolution should also be so low that you can only see half of a web page at once.

          Otherwise it’s not a proper Kitchen Computer (TM).

          1. Example from 1999


            The promise was a machine called “iToaster” that was capable of displaying a cooking recipe from a web site, while playing an MP3 file, and an MPEG video about the recipe while also displaying another video screen of a baby monitor, on a $199 device back when you needed to add at least another zero to the price tag to pull everything off. Plus, you needed broadband access for it to work while people were still using analog modems or at best ISDN.

            Sufficient to say, nobody has ever heard of it since.

      1. My dad cooks to decompress from work so he spends as much time in his kitchen as he does in his office. He bought a small refurbished Dell workstation, the one where the monitor is mounted to the side of the case with a carry handle, and set it up on the kitchen counter. It does double duty as a recipe box and home automation controller.

        Its not a bad setup if all you’re doing is looking up recipes and controlling your smart lights… Or want to yell at the talking news heads every morning while you make eggs. I’ve been after him to use it to keep an inventory on the fridge and pantry but we haven’t found a smooth enough method for updating items used vs remaining. Scales on the bulk and liquid items maybe?

        1. Nah, that’s old hat.

          Now it’s a smart multi-cooker pot with Alexa built in to help you find new recipes. Remember, an actual computer (tablet, phone…) in a kitchen doesn’t count. For a genuine “Kitchen Computer”, it has to have a very low price point and a pointlessly difficult user interface, and its major function should be to keep recipes because there’s really nothing else you can do with it.

  2. The Honeywell H316 was actually quite a capable minicomputer for machines of that era. We should not underestimate the late 1960s minicomputers, they had sufficient memory and processing power to take on the tasks and applications of desktop machines that appeared several years later.

    The H316 was also the machine that Charles H. Moore developed the first commercial standalone implementation of Forth for the control of radio telescopes, when he joined the National Radio Astronomy Observatory NRAO in 1968. He had an early version of Forth running on an IBM 1130 at the beginning of 1968.

  3. Wondering when the people in the refrigerator business, who seem to think we need a video display on the door of what’s inside, decide to add an IOT connection to some recipe server. (I don’t follow such time-wasting trends, so perhaps it’s already in existence.)
    I remember back in the early ’90’s when working for EDS in the SF Bay Area that they were working on automating refrigerator “inventory” to automatically order from your favorite supermarket when supplies got low.

  4. Over the years we tried ‘recipe’ programs for the PCs, but, here, it never caught on. The recipe ‘card’ box still fills that need and works well. So probably I won’t be installing an RPI (my choice) with a small touch screen in the kitchen :) .

    1. Nobody said it has to be a small touchscreen :D

      I put in an old 21″ kiosk display:

      It runs my own recipes website (through a browser in kiosk mode on an rpi).

      Which allows us to pick recipes (and quantities) from our phone or PC, which are then added to OurGroceries for during shopping and a weekmenu on the recipes site. Then in the kitchen you can look at the weekmenu, click on that day’s recipe and get it on the screen with the correct ingredient quantities.

  5. One of the biggest problems I have using an iPad in the kitchen is the screen going to sleep while I am doing something else, and having to log back in each time.
    The next biggest problem is putting it in a good location and reading angle.
    (It’s my wife’s iPad, so it doesn’t unlock by my touch or whatever. )
    Yeah, a 21 inch screen would be nice too!

    1. There was a 19″ tablet/TV thing selling a decade ago for the kitchen, it claimed to have recipe database. But it was a lame reapplication of the slideshow mode in a kludge to early android/digital photoframe hard and software, in that it had a bunch of jpegs of recipes, not text searchable or anything, just in slideshow or swipe to browse mode.

    2. …log in back each time….

      … while your fingers are full of flour or butter or oil and the fingerprint reader freaks out… and you freak out about the sticky screen after cooking.

      That said, an iPad is very good in the kitchen. Seriously, walk to the fridge to look at a vertical tablet which I cant read when to door is open???!! Get real. I can also read the news or email while whatever is baking. The only problem is that place where I sit is the only place in the house with bad WiFi.

  6. My “recipe computer” is an X230, the water reistance helps. Also, the trackpoint mouse is easy to use with wet hands and the edge-to-edge keyboard saves counter space without sacrificing ease of use.

  7. Designed and built some peripheral gear for the CTL 316/516 (the military version) back in the early ’70s. Weird architecture — not an I/O bus but two separate buses, one for I and one for O. Was an early computer to use ICs (DTL and TTL) but in order to provide compatibility with existing Honeywell peripherals, the whole thing ran not on 5 volts, but 6 volts. Had lots of noisy fans to deal with the excess dissipation due to the higher voltage. The 516 used an early switch-mode power supply that ran at an ear-drilling 7 kHz; we put it in the next room and ran wires through the wall. We “affectionately” referred to it as the “Honeybucket”.

  8. “Programs like Visicalc and Wordstar sold businesses on computers, but the real killer application for people wound up being communicating with other people and businesses via the network. ”

    It’s not a popular opinion (or popularly espoused) but I would contend that (anecdotally), much like home VHS video, the killer app for many was pornography.

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