Computer Chronicles Revisited 53 — Reader Rabbit, Science Toolkit, A.G. Bear, and the Melard Access

This next Computer Chronicles episode launched the annual tradition of presenting a “buyers guide” for the holiday season. (It’s referred to as a “Christmas Buyer’s Guide” for this first installment.) These episodes would air each December for the duration of the series and typically featured panels composed of regular contributors.

Indeed, this first buyers guide had no in-studio guests aside from the three regular contributors from this third season: George Morrow, Paul Schindler, and Wendy Woods (who made her first on-set appearance). Woods presented one remote segment, but otherwise this episode simply had the hosts and contributors recommend technology-themed gifts to the viewers.

Would Christmas 1985 End the Computer Sales Slump?

Stewart Cheifet presented a brief cold open from a local computer store in San Mateo. This was followed with the customary studio introduction, where Cheifet and Gary Kildall looked at Jingle Disk, a Christmas-themed program released by ThoughtWare and running on an Apple IIe. Cheifet described it as the “ultimate hi-tech Christmas present for the hacker on your list.”

Wendy Woods then presented her remote segment for the episode, narrating B-roll footage of a local shopping mall in San Mateo that was bustling with holiday shoppers, many of whom were looking to buy computers. Don Endy, a sales representative at the local Radio Shack store, told Woods that computers were selling well this year. He attributed the increase to price cuts for the top-of-the-line machines, which had taken away a little from the sales of less-expensive machines.

Woods said that while the range of affordable machines had expanded, different features appealed to different types of customers. For instance, a child was more interested in color graphics than a spreadsheet. So Christmas sales of low-end computers were brisk. But as the gap narrowed between home and office machines, all shoppers were getting smarter.

Jim DeWhitt, an assistant manager at a store called Computer Craft, said that customers had become more knowledgeable, which was helpful. They seemed to know what they wanted and had friends who owned computers and could given them advice.

Woods noted that computer sales were disappointing overall in 1985 and many computer stores had closed for good. But retailers were optimistic that computers would continue to excite the public. DeWhitt said he expected the holiday season to be the strongest part of the year in terms of sales. He wasn’t deterred by the past year as far as any “slump” was concerned.

Using Your Apple II for Science!

George Morrow and Paul Schindler joined Cheifet and Kildall for the first round table. Given the departure from the usual episode format, I won’t attempt a straight recap. Instead, I’ll briefly run down the various products recommended by the panel.

  • Cheifet opened by showing a program called All About Hanukkah published by Davka Corp. This was basically the Jewish holiday counterpart of the Jingle Disk seen earlier.
  • Kildall recommended two computer books that he’d purchased for his own children: Kids and the Commodore 64 by Edward H. Carlson and Becoming a Mac Artist by Vahé Guzelimian. Both books were published by Compute!, a well-known computer magazine of the time.
  • Morrow recommended Signal from Lotus. This was a real-time stock quotation system offered by the makers of Lotus 1-2-3 and used a combination of software and an FM radio receiver to receive information as opposed to a modem. (Below is a newspaper ad that ran for Signal around this time.)

Ad copy: “It’s like being there, right on the Exchange floor. New Signal from Lotus. It’s the real-time market quote ystem that offers you up-to-the-second quotes, plus instant personal computer analysis capabilities at a cost-effective price. No modems, no delays, just non-stop information that you can easily use for immediate portfolio valuation and technical analysis with 1-2-3 or Symphony. And because Signal uses FM broadcast, there are no access or telephone charges. One thing more. Along with Signal you get the service and support of the world’s premier supplier of software, Lotus.”

Schindler recommended a number of products that he’d previously reviewed for “Random Access,” including Ultimate Trivia, Bakup, and Higgins. He also gushed about XyWrite, a word processor published by XyQuest that he used in his own work. Schindler and Kildall then demonstrated Reader Rabbit, an educational software title published by The Learning Company, on an Apple IIe.

Reader Rabbit consisted of several mini-games designed to help young children learn how to read basic words. (I’ve recreated the demonstration below using an emulator.) In this mini-game, the child had to identify words that included a matching letter. The child–or in the on-air demo, Kildall–pressed the spacebar to let a word through if they thought it matched. Otherwise the word would “fall” into a garbage can at the bottom of the screen. If the child matched five words correctly, a dancing rabbit appeared.

A conveyor belt carries words from the left to the right of the screen. There is a trash can at the bottom of the screen. On the top there is the pattern “–b,” meaning the player must match words ending in “b.” On the right side is a stack of five words that match, jab, web, sub, cub, and bib. A white rabbit dressed in a blue shirt and orange overalls is dancing on top of the stack.

Cheifet closed the segment with another demo, this one for Science Toolkit by Brøderbund. This was a hardware-and-software package that enabled children to conduct basic science experiments using an Apple II. The Toolkit came with a photo-electric sensor and a thermometer that plugged into the Apple’s joystick port. The software received measurements from these probes and presented real-time graphs. There was also a built-in stopwatch function to time experiments. (Again, I’ve recreated the main menu from software via emulation below, although obviously I couldn’t access the hardware.)

A menu listing five options: Thermometer, Light Meter, Timer, Strip Chart, and Other Tools. There is a small icon to the right of each optin. On the bottom there is a prompt to hit the Escape key to return to the Main Menu.

Robotic Pets and a New Handheld Computer

Wendy Woods joined Cheifet, Kildall, and Morrow for the final segment. Woods brought with her two items produced by Axlon, a company started by Nolan Bushnell, the co-founder and former CEO of the original Atari, Inc.

The first item was A.G. Bear, a teddy bear with a voice-synthesis chip. The bear didn’t “talk” so much as make gibberish sounds in response to human speech. And in fact, Woods had difficulty getting the bear she brought to stop making noise, as it could be heard throughout the rest of the segment.

The rest of the group presented their hardware recommendations for the season. Morrow endorsed the Epson Equity line of IBM PC compatibles. Kildall suggested buying a “lightweight” printer such as the Okidata 192.

Cheifet endorsed a “delightful little machine” called the Access from Melard Technologies. This was a small handheld computer with a 40-column, 8-row LCD screen. Cheifet said it was capable of creating 80-column documents using a built-in word processor. It also had a file search utility. Kildall asked if the Access could communicate with other machines. Cheifet said it had a modem port and an acoustic coupler, so you could use it with a pay telephone. Morrow noted the screen had excellent contrast. Cheifet added the Access came with removable cartridges that could be used for either RAM or ROM and the battery lasted about 10 hours.

A small hand-held computer sitting on a desk. The machine is flipped open, revealing a small LCD character display on top and a keyboard on the bottom.

Woods concluded the program by showing off her second Axlon toy, a pair of Petsters, which were simple robots that looked like cats. Like A.G. Bear, the Petsters responded to human speech or clapping. They made a “meow” sound and started moving around the table. (Cheifet jokingly asked if the two Petsters could mate.)

A pair of robotic toys that look like small cats. They are sitting on top of a desk.

Abandoned Adam a Surprise Holiday Seller

Stewart Cheifet presented this episode’s “Random Access,” which featured news stories from December 1985.

  • December computer sales were looking good, not because of Christmas, but thanks to businesses motivated by year-end tax considerations. Home computer sales were projected to be down from 1984, while office computer sales would be up more than 30 percent.
  • Cheifet said the “surprise hit” of the holiday season was the now-orphaned Coleco Adam, which was selling better than last year thanks to discounts.
  • Microsoft was rumored to be coming out with a “generic” version of DOS 5.0, while IBM would have its own “superset” of DOS 5.0 that would take advantage of the PC-AT’s 80286 microprocessor while maintaining compatibility with existing DOS software. Cheifet said the main features of the new DOS would include better graphics, addressing more than 640 KB of memory, multitasking, and connectivity with mainframes.
  • Steve Wozniak was buying up Apple stock following the departure of Steve Jobs from the company. Wozniak reportedly bought $5 million in Apple shares and planned to purchase more in the future.
  • Data General said it had a new “lap portable” computer that would include a built-in hard disk drive and an easy-to-read screen. Cheifet said the product was described as a “laptop XT.”
  • The Chairman of the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Government Operations said the Social Security Administration’s new computer system was a “mess,” suffering from missed deadlines, cost overruns, and political problems. Cheifet said the new computers were now expected to cost nearly $1 billion, almost double the original estimate, and two former SSA officials had been found guilty of soliciting bribes in connection with software contracts.
  • Paul Schindler reviewed Rocky’s Boots, an educational game from The Learning Company ($50) that taught kids about electrical circuits.
  • Reference Technology was selling a CD-ROM for the IBM PC with over 8,000 free programs–but you had to buy a $1,600 optical drive to run it.
  • Borland International was reportedly buying up the electronic publishing rights to a variety of reference works, including Barlett’s, the Columbia Encyclopedia, and Black’s Law Dictionary.
  • TW Technologies was now offering an $800 hard disk drive for the IBM PCjr.
  • A new program called Chuckle Pops (Enlightened Software, $14.95) stored hundreds of jokes in a computer.
  • Referencing an item I discussed in my last blog post, Atari Chairman Jack Tramiel profited at the recent Winter COMDEX show by subletting the company’s booth to 45 software vendors who paid $1,000 each for the privilege.

Nolan Bushnell’s Animatronic Fixation

Axlon was not the only company peddling technology-enhanced animal toys in 1985. According to a November 1985 report by Suzanne Dolezal of Knight-Ridder Newspapers, there were at least seven “animated” toys on the market that holiday season. In addition to A.G. Bear and the Petsters, there was Teddy Ruxpin and Gabby Bear, which both used a combination of animation and audio cassette playback; the Tattle Talk Monkey, which used a speech synthesis chip that could echo back a few words; and Chatter Animals, which produced “jungle-type sounds.”

As mentioned in the episode, Axlon was started by Nolan Bushnell, best-known as the co-founder of the original Atari, Inc., not to be confused with Jack Tramiel’s new Atari Corporation. Bushnell had long been interested in mechanical puppetry (i.e., animatronics). While a college student in the 1960s, he said he wanted to work for the Walt Disney Company as an “imagineer,” one of the people who designed the company’s theme park attractions, which often included animatronic figures.

Later at Atari, Bushnell started a restaurant called Pizza Time Theatre–better known as Chuck E. Cheese’s–which combined a pizza parlor and video arcade with an animatronic musical show reminiscent of a Disney attraction. Warner Communications sold the rights to the restaurant concept back to Bushnell after it fired him from Atari in 1978. Bushnell would take Pizza Time Theatre public in 1981, but the company filed for bankruptcy in 1984. A rival chain, Showbiz Pizza Place, then bought Chuck E. Cheese’s and the two companies merged its operations. (The combined company continues to operate restaurants today under the Chuck E. Cheese’s name.)

While Chuck E. Cheese’s was in the midst of its meteoric rise and fall, Bushnell also started a venture-capital group called Catalyst Technologies in 1981. Catalyst basically served as an “incubator” for tech startups, according to a 2017 article by Benj Edwards for Fast Company. Edwards said that at its height, Catalyst was home to as many as 20 different companies.

Axlon was one of those companies. Edwards said it was also “one of Bushnell’s favorites.” By 1986, Bushnell had “consolidated his business interests and personal attention” with Axlon and abandoned Catalyst Technologies altogether.

Axlon’s toys, including A.G. Bear and the Petsters, were distributed by the toy giant Hasbro, Inc. Indeed, one former Axlon employee told Polygon’s Jeremy Parish in 2018 that Axlon was “really a Hasbro division.”

Outside of A.G. Bear and the Petsters, Axlon’s only other notable toy was, quite literally, a noxious product known as Breath Blasters. According to a 1989 retrospective in the Boston Globe:

In 1987, Axlon Inc., a Silicon Valley company headed by Nolan Bushnell, founder of video pioneer Atari Inc., spent $70,000 developing Breath Blasters, dolls which when squeezed emitted odors reminiscent of vomit and other organic odors.

By that Christmas, “everywhere that it got on the shelf it sold out in minutes,” Bushnell boasts. “The problem was, several retailers decided they wouldn’t sell it. When you’d first open the box, this bad smell would come out. They decided that someone would think a kid had thrown up on the box, or something.”

Axlon later tried to pivot back to Bushnell’s old stomping ground, video games. In the early 1990s, Axlon developed two of the final games published by Atari Corporation for the original Atari 2600 console. Axlon also developed a never-released console called the NEMO for Hasbro, which was discussed at length in the previously mentioned Polygon article.

The details of Axlon’s demise are somewhat murky. In a 1992 article for the Tampa Tribune, Bonnie Lamp Fowler said Axlon stopped making Petsters in 1987 and distributed its remaining stock to a San Jose-based company called Alltronics. Axlon’s corporate filings with the State of Claifornia stopped in 1996. Benj Edwards and other sources have said that Axlon went public before being acquired by Hasbro. My guess is that Hasbro actually acquired whatever Axlon assets remained when Bushnell lost interest and decided to close up shop.

Ex-Atari Programmer Turned Adventure Into Edutainment

Another company featured prominently in this episode, The Learning Company, can also partially trace its lineage back to Atari, Inc. Rocky’s Boots, the program reviewed by Paul Schindler in “Random Access,” was designed by Warren Robinett, a former Atari programmer who developed three cartridges for the Atari 2600.

The most notable of Robinett’s three Atari projects was Adventure, a loose graphical adaptation of the text-based game Colossal Cave Adventure that was popular on 1970s minicomputers. In Adventure, players controlled a square avatar that picked up objects and used them to complete tasks in a multi-screen game world. Robinett adopted this same model for Rocky’s Boots, only instead of slaying dragons and unlocking castles, the player’s goal was to construct electrical circuits and build machines. Robinett later said in an interview that Rocky’s Boots “was originally intended to be an adventure game where you built machines to defeat the monsters,” but the concept later “evolved in a different direction.”

A game screen from “Rocky’s Boots.” The text reads: “The little square that shows where you are is orange. That means you have electricity. You can use it to turn things on. Turn on this ON-OFF Sign. To do that, move on top of the little hole in the socket. Your electricity gets in through the hole and turns it on.”

That different direction took Robinett from leaving Atari to joining Ann McCormick, a former nun and school teacher, and Teri Perl, a Stanford-trained Ph.D and educational psychologist, in forming Alternative Learning Technologies (ALT). Robinett started working on his revised concept for Rocky’s Boots with ALT. When the game was finally released in 1982, ALT had changed its name to The Learning Company.

According to a 2018 profile of The Learning Company by Abigail Cain for The Outline, during the development of Rocky’s Boots, McCormick hired another Stanford Ph.D, Leslie Grimm, to help Robinett part-time with the program. After joining The Learning Company full-time 1981, Grimm developed Reader Rabbit. Cain said the two programs put The Learning Company on the map:

Inspired by the methods of a “particularly fine teacher” in a nearby school district who taught students with language disabilities, [Grimm] created a dancing digital rabbit to guide children on their way to literacy. Reader Rabbit was born, published in 1984 as one of the very first character-based software programs. It spawned more than 30 spin-offs, which together sold at least 14 million copies.

Paired with Rocky’s Boots, TLC had both a critical darling and a popular franchise. “It’s not on people’s wish list to get something that teaches their second grader logic gates,” explained McCormick. “It’s on their wish list that they learn to read. So Reader Rabbit was a much more popular product.”

Perl, Grimm, and Robinett were also credited as the co-authors of Gertrude’s Secrets, an educational puzzle game in the same style as Rocky’s Boots. (Secrets was discussed in a previous Chronicles episode.) But as was often the case with 1980s software companies, The Learning Company took venture capital and its founders ended up leaving one-by-one in short order. Cain said that Robinett and Grimm were gone by 1985, Perl was fired, and McCormick was “pushed out” right around the time this Chronicles episode aired in December 1985.

Where Did All the Light Go?

(Editor’s Note: This section was added in January 2024 and adapted from Episode 11 of Chronicles Revisited Podcast.)

I reviewed the early history of Brøderbund in a prior post, which discussed a June 1985 episode focused on the company’s computer graphics program Dazzle Draw. By that time, Brøderbund had outgrown its origins as a publisher of computer games for the Apple II. Indeed, when the company set up shop at the January 1985 Consumer Electronics Show, its booth focused on three new products that would launch on the Apple II as part of the company’s new “Explorations” series.

The first product, Where in the World is Carmen Sandiego?, was a geography-themed adventure game where players had to follow clues and track down members of a gang of thieves led by a mysterious woman in a red fedora and trench coat. The second product, Welcome Aboard: A Muppet Cruise to Computer Literacy, featured Kermit the Frog and his pals teaching children how to perform basic computer tasks like word processing, electronic mail, and database management.

The third and final product was Science Toolkit, which for the first time in Brøderbund’s history combined software with a hardware peripheral. As Stewart Cheifet’s demo suggested, Brøderbund marketed Science Toolkit as a home science lab. The hardware consisted of an analog-to-digital converter that plugged into the Apple II’s joystick port. The converter had four input ports that could be connected to probes. Each probe performed a specific type of measurement, which was then interpreted by the included software. The 129-page manual detailed 27 sample experiments to perform, and the user was encouraged to design their own additional experiments.

Brøderbund released the original Science Toolkit package seen in this episode as the Master Module, which included probes to measure light and temperature. The sample experiments detailed in the manual were designed so they could be performed either at home or in a classroom setting. For example, one experiment was called “Where did all the light go?” This used the included light probe, known as a photocell, a ready-to-assemble cardboard stand, and a piece of paper that served as a “light guard.” The user connected the photocell to to the Apple II via the analog-to-digital converter. Next, they propped the photocell up on the stand and pointed it towards a light source (the manual recommended using a 10-watt incandescent light bulb). The software included a “light meter” that recorded light intensity between 0 and 500 foot candles. The software could also, at the user’s discretion, make an audible noise to indicate when the light intensity rose or fell.

After taking this initial reading, the manual instructed the user to move the light source closer towards the photocell until it reached the maximum possible reading of 500 foot candles. The user would then use a physical tape measure to determine the distance between the photocell and the light bulb. Next, the user moved the light source twice that distance away and had the light reader record a new intensity measurement. This was repeated several times until there were at least five measurements. The goal was for the user to prove learn that the amount of light striking a surface decreased by the square of the distance to the light source.

If this doesn’t sound like the most entertaining use of an Apple IIe in 1985, keep in mind that most “educational” software released in this period focused on rote instructional drills. Broderbund’s aim with the entire “Explorations” series was to, in the words of company executive Cathy Carlston, create software “that could stand on its own as entertainment.”

Of course, today the only one of the three “Explorations” programs that most people remember is Carmen Sandiego. It spurred a number of software sequels—such as Where in North Dakota is Carmen Sandiego?—as well as multiple television shows, including a recent animated series for Netflix. As for the Muppet Cruise to Computer Literacy, despite the Jim Henson license, the program was a commercial failure and quickly forgotten. Video game historian Kate Willaert noted in a December 2021 social media thread that Science Toolkit was a “mid-tier seller” for Broderbund. Indeed, Toolkit performed better in its first couple of months of release than Carmen Sandiego, although the latter would eventually sold more than four times as many units.

One reason for that strong initial sales performance was likely the favorable media coverage. In addition to Stewart Cheifet’s laudatory on-air demo, longtime syndicated computer columnist Bob Schwaback wrote in a November 1985 review that he’d spent the past two years reviewing a number of “experimental science programs” and Science Toolkit was the first one that he could “honestly recommend to anyone.” In particular, Schwabach noted that Broderbund managed to create an analog-to-digital converter that fit into a $70 retail package. Other products utilizing similar converters ran between $300 and $1,000 at the time, he said. So given Science Toolkit’s price point, Schwabach said, “The potential for schools and bright young people is enormous.”

Schwabach’s only significant criticism was that the included temperature probe only covered a range between 10 and 140 degrees Farenheit, a restriction he said was imposed by Broderbund’s lawyers rather than the product’s designers. (When Broderbund later released a revised Master Module under the name Science Toolkit Plus, this limitation was no longer present.)

Broderbund would release three expansion modules for Science Toolkit. The first module, Speed and Motion, came with a speedometer, a tachometer to measure rotational speeds, and a small car powered by a balloon. It also included an additional photocell, reportedly the result of feedback that Broderbund received from science teachers who had requested a second light meter. The second expansion module, Earthquake Lab, came with a build-it-yourself seismoscope and seismograph software. The final expansion, Body Lab, featured a build-it-yourself spirometer, a device used to measure the volume of air expelled by a person’s lungs. The additional software could also measure and display a user’s heart rate. (Paul Schindler reviewed the expansion modules in a November 1987 Chronicles episode.)

As for the origins of Science Toolkit, a 1987 Broderbund newsletter credited company co-founder Gary Carlston with having the “inspiration” to “create a hardware extension for the Apple” to “conduct real-world experiments rather than on-screen simulations.” But that inspiration almost certainly came from outside the company.

Specifically, it probably came from Dr. Robert Tinker, a former college professor who was a pioneer in the field of science education. Tinker was a physicist by training. While enrolled in the PhD program at Stanford in the 1960s, he was inspired by the Civil Rights Movement to exit school with his master’s degree and take a teaching job at a historically black college in Alabama. Tinker eventually completed his doctoral studies at MIT, where he worked under Professor John G. King, a major proponent of reinventing science education at the high school level. One of King’s ideas, Tinker later recalled, was to create a “shoebox of sensors that students could use to measure almost everything.” Of course, King proposed this in 1962, when computers were still confined to large mainframes and expensive minicomputers.

But in the early 1970s, Tinker started experimenting with minicomputer-based projects to teach students. When the Intel 8008 microprocessor came onto the market, he pivoted to microcomputers. Tinker said it was a colleague, Greg Edwards, who first suggested to him using an analog-to-digital converter to connect a sensor to a microcomputer for use as a “laboratory instrument” to gather data.

Tinker tested Edwards’ idea using the KIM-1, a developmental micro-computer created in 1976 by Pennsylvania-based MOS Technology, as a showcase for its 6502 microprocessor. Tinker connected an analog temperature probe to the KIM-1 and used it to conduct what he dubbed “the cooling curve experiment.” Basically, the probe measured the temperature of a sample of mothballs inside of a test tube. A second probe measured the temperature of the surrounding water to demonstrate that it was cooler and “extracting heat” from the test-tube sample, even though the mothballs remained at a constant temperature.

The cooling curve experiment was merely a proof of concept. But it sparked enough interest among physics teachers that Tinker and his team developed a number of additional experiments to run using their new KIM-1 expansion board. They programmed the experiments onto a single ROM chip for ease of access. Tinker later recalled they sold several hundred KIM computers with these add-ons.

Tinker would come to describe his work as “Microcomputer Based Labs” or MBL. Later, this type of hardware-software combination would be known as “probeware,” a term coined by Dr. Marcia Linn, a Stanford-trained psychologist who conducted an Apple Computer-funded study in the mid-1980s using Apple II computers to teach heat and temperature to middle school science students.

By the early 1980s, Tinker moved his MBL research off of the KIM-1 and onto the Apple II. One reason for this was the Apple II had a game port that accepted analog paddles. This was a design feature implemented by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak, who wanted to play Breakout, a game he helped design for Atari, Inc., on his new microcomputer. Tinker realized this port was also ideal for taking inputs from a photocell. So his team at the Technical Education Research Center (or TERC) conducted a series of workshops for science teachers who wanted to learn how to use computers in their classrooms. One part of the workshop had the participants connect a photocell to the Apple II paddle port and then write a simple BASIC program to record and graph the data. Later, Tinker and his team designed what they called a “Blue Box” to connect four inputs into the Apple game port, which sounds an awful lot like the design used in the Science Toolkit analog-to-digital converter. Tinker’s Blue Box even included both a photocell and a temperature probe.

Unfortunately, Tinker later recalled that the TERC workshops were a financial failure. They did, however, spur the development of a series of commercial probeware packages published by HRM Software. Known as the Experiments in… series, the first product came out sometime in late 1984 or early 1985 and was called Experiments in Physiology. This kit included Tinker’s Blue Box, probes, and Apple II software to conduct classroom experiments measuring a subject’s heart and breathing rate—features we’d later see on the Science Toolkit Body Module.

It seems, however, that even though HRM was first-to-market, it could not compete with Broderbund on price. Early news reports on the Experiments series priced each of the HRM modules between $150 and $250. Meanwhile, the Science Toolkit Master Module sold for between $60 and $70, with each expansion retailing for around $40. So while Broderbund’s product thrived and helped propel the company’s already solid balance sheet, HRM Software ended up in bankruptcy. Robert Tinker later observed that HRM had simply replicated his Blue Box designs without taking the time to re-engineer them for mass production. As a result, the units that HRM sold were less reliable and more expensive than they needed to be.

Tinker’s next foray into commercial probeware was one that hints at the most direct connection to Broderbund. In 1984, PBS broadcast a 13-episode educational series called The Voyage of the Mimi. This was one of the first attempts to create a “multimedia” project targeting students. The television program showed a fictional account of children assisting graduate students performing whale research on a sailboat named the Mimi. The children in the show used real probeware designed by Tinker and his team at TERC to measure water temperature, light transmission, and whale sounds. There was also a software package designed to be used in the classroom. (Part of this software was demonstrated in a September 1986 Chronicles episode.) There was also a probeware component, again designed by Tinker and TERC. This package focused on graphical on-screen displays, including a “live” thermometer and a general-purpose timer, both of which were features of Science Toolkit.

The most revealing clue, however, is that Voyage of the Mimi was produced by the Bank Street College of Education in New York City. Bank Street College developed a number of early Broderbund home productivity products, notably Bank Street Writer, a word processor that was one of the company’s early hits. Broderbund president Doug CArlston was close with then-Bank Street College president Dick Ruopp, the later of whom worked directly with Tinker on Mimi.

Tinker said there were plans to spin off the probeware component of Mimi into a standalone commercial package that would have been called Bank Street Lab. But that project never materialized due to the sale of the company that owned the publishing rights to Mimi. And yet, roughly a year after Mimi debuted, Broderbund hit the stores with Science Toolkit, a package that seems to accomplish most if not all of the same objectives as the abandoned Bank Street project.

Did Dick Ruopp suggest to Doug Carlston that Broderbund take up the idea? Maybe. Once again, this is just speculation. But the timeline seems to make sense.

In any event, Science Toolkit did well enough for Broderbund to release a 2.0 version, dubbed Science Toolkit Plus, in 1989. The two biggest upgrades involved the addition of a second temperature probe and a higher suggested retail price of $100. Existing Toolkit owners could purchase an upgrade for just $30. Broderbund also released an IBM PC version in 1988 that required an add-on board with a game control port.

By the early 1990s, Broderbund was finally moving away from its Apple II roots. Science Toolkit never saw another upgrade. The family-owned Broderbund was also in the midst of change. In 1991, Doug Carlston took Broderbund public on the stock exchange. And within a few years the company fell victim to a hostile takeover bid and faded into history. While some of Broderbund’s better-known IP, notably Print Shop and Carmen Sandiego, continue under new owners today, Science Toolkit never saw any attempt at a revival.

That’s not to say the concept of probeware went away. One of Robert Tinker’s workshop students, a physics teacher named David Vernier, was inspired to start his own probeware company, Vernier Software. That company is still around today and is generally considered the leader in the field, selling a wide range of probes and software that work with modern computers. Sadly, Robert Tinker himself is no longer with us, having passed away in June 2017 at the age of 75. In a tribute, Dr. Gary Stager called Tinker the “Thomas Edison of STEM,” and specifically pointed to Science Toolkit as a shining example of what Tinker sought to accomplish with probeware.

Notes from the Random Access File

  • This episode is available at the Internet Archive and has an original broadcast date of December 10, 1985.
  • Melard Technologies, the New York-based company behind the Access handheld computer, was founded by Ali Sharif-Enami in 1982. During its 20-year history, Melard produced a variety of wireless computing devices, primarily for business and enterprise customers.
  • A.G. Bear was designed by Ron Milner, who previously worked for Nolan Busnhell at Atari, Inc. (Milner had co-designed the Atari 2600.) Milner’s Applied Design Labs later acquired the rights to manufacture and sell a limited number of new A.G. Bears and replacement parts.
  • The Coleco Adam originally retailed for $750 when it launched in 1983. According to newspaper advertisements I found from December 1985, retailers had slashed the price to just under $300. And that was for a computer with a printer! (The printer was not optional; it contained the Adam’s power supply.)
  • I think Stewart misspoke when he talked about the rumors surrounding “DOS 5.0.” In 1985 the current version of DOS was 3.1. There would not be a MS-DOS 5.0 release until 1991.
  • Data General did release its successor to the Data General/One–confusingly named the Data General/One Model 2–in May 1986. It did offer a built-in 10 MB hard drive, but it would set you back $4,635, according to InfoWorld. The base model with a single floppy drive only cost about $1,800.
  • The ultimate fates of both The Learning Company and Brøderbund will converge in the 1990s, but I’ll get to that later. If you can’t wait, Abigail Cain’s article provided an excellent overview of that part of the story.