The public was already very excited about computers back in the 1960s but virtually nobody could afford to purchase one. Even fewer people had the room for a computer of the era or the expertise required to use it. To cater to consumer interest, a number of computer-like toys and educational kits were developed and sold in the years before home computers became common. Across the board, these were incapable of digital processing but they did utilize some computing principles. One example was Hasbro’s Think-a-Tron trivia “computer,” and Michael Gardi is building a similar machine to pay homage to that classic toy.
The Hasbro Think-a-Tron, like virtually every other contemporary product of this nature, was a purely electromechanical device. It had no digital processing capabilities whatsoever. But thanks to some very clever mechanisms and electronic circuits, it was capable of providing answers to multiple-choice and true-or-false trivia questions. Those questions and their potential answers were printed on small paper punch cards. The lucky kid who owned a Think-a-Tron would announce their answer and then slip the punch card into the machine. Holes in the punch card allow pins to slip through, which engage the mechanism to spin a wheel with light holes that are used to display the answer as A, B, C, T, or F (True or False for the latter two). It was a cheap way to almost reproduce the experience of using a computer and let kids see if their answers were correct in a fun way.
Gardi’s machine will operate in a very similar way to the Think-a-Tron from a user perspective but things will be working completely differently behind the scenes. Instead of relying on complex mechanical wizardry, Gardi will take advantage of modern microcontrollers — essentially computers in their own right — to achieve the same effect. His display is made up of 35 WS2812B individually-addressable RGB LEDs arranged in a 5x7 grid. Those are controlled by an Arduino board and are housed within a 3D-printed frame with a 3D-printed light diffuser plate that looks like the Think-a-Tron’s “display.” At this time, Gardi has just coded a simple program that flips between the possible answers. The next step is to implement a punch card system with some sort of sensor that lets the Arduino detect the punched answers. Be sure to follow him if you want to see how the machine turns out once Gardi finishes it up.