From Tinkertoy to Computer Programming: Great Moments in Chicago Toys

How a Chicago tombstone-maker’s wooden toy set inspired one of the great computer scientists of our time, and how Frank Lloyd Wright’s Imperial Hotel resulted in the invention of Lincoln Logs… by his son.

I just learned about a great moment in Chicago history from one of my favorite blogs, Appalachian History, which brought back childhood memories: Tinkertoys were invented here in 1913 by an Evanston stonemason and tombstone-maker named Charles Pajeau, and came to be in one of those only-in-the-early-20th-century stories:

Charles Pajeau, a stonemason from Evanston, Illinois invented Tinkertoy Construction Sets. He proposed the idea in 1913 on a commuter train to Chicago Board of Trade trader Robert Pettit, and together they started The Toy Tinkers Company. Pajeau designed his first set in his garage. Inspired by watching children play with pencils, sticks and empty spools of thread, Pajeau developed several basic wooden parts which children could assemble in a variety of three dimensional abstract ways.

The Tinkertoy struck out at the American Toy Fair the next year, but Pajeau—in a marketing move that was very much of its time—hired midgets to play with them in the windows of Marshall Fields and Grand Central Station, and the rest is history:

[Tinkertoys] and a host of other construction toys in the early 20th century, including Lincoln Logs and Erector Sets, helped kids throughout Appalachia learn by exercising what we now think of as “spatial intelligence.”

Tinkertoys were the favorite toy of computer science/artificial intelligence genius Marvin Minsky, designer of the first LOGO turtle. Minsky explains the relationship to the stonemason’s wooden toys to his cyber-world invention:

[Programs] make things come to be, where nothing ever was before. Some people find a new experience in this, a feeling of freedom, a power to do anything you want. Not just a lot – but anything. I don’t mean like getting what you want by just wishing. I don’t mean like having a faster-than-light spaceship, or a time machine. I mean like giving a child enough kindergarten-blocks to build a full-sized city without ever running out of them. You still have to decide what to do with the blocks. But there aren’t any outside obstacles. The only limits are the ones inside you.

Myself, I first had that experience before I went to school. There weren’t any programs yet, but we had toy construction-sets. One was called TinkerToy. To build with TinkerToy you only need two kinds of parts – just Sticks and Spools. The Spools are little wooden wheels. Each has one hole through the middle, and eight holes drilled into the rim. The Sticks are just round little sticks of various lengths, which you can push into the spool-holes. The sticks have little slits cut in their ends, which make them springy when they’re pressed into the holes, so they hold good and tight.

What’s strange is that those spools and sticks are enough to make anything.

[snip]

The secret is in finding out how much can come from so few kinds of parts. Once, when still a small child, I got quite a reputation. My family was visiting somewhere and I built a TinkerToy tower in the hotel lobby. I can’t recall how high it was, but it must have been very high. To me it was just making triangles and cubes, and putting them together. But the grown-ups were terribly impressed that anyone so small could build anything so big. And I learned something, too – that some adults just didn’t understand how you can build whatever you want, so long as you don’t run out of sticks and spools. And only just this minute while I’m writing this, I realize what all that meant. Those adults simply weren’t spool-stick-literate!

When my friend, Seymour Papert, first invented LOGO, I had the same experience again. LOGO has some things like sticks—except that their computer commands: a stick 100 units long is called “FORWARD 100”. LOGO also has things like spools: “RIGHT: 90” starts a second stick at right angles to the last one you drew. I recognized old building-friends at once.

Minsky wasn’t the only computer scientist infatuated with Tinkertoys; Danny Hillis, one of the minds behind the fascinating Clock of the Long Now project, built a Tinkertoy computer. It made me want to go out and find some Tinkertoys to play with at my desk.

That, and Lincoln Logs—which were invented by Frank Lloyd Wright’s son John, inspired by his father’s design for the Imperial Hotel in Japan (he also designed a spectacular hotel on Lake Michigan near Chesterton, Indiana, that’s sadly no longer in existence).

As if to complete the circle, LEGO is releasing a Robie House model, the second Wright house they’ve replicated after Fallingwater, on August 27 at the real Robie House.

Lego Robie House Frank Lloyd Wright

It’s pretty, but as Marvin Minsky argues, don’t let LEGO make you put down your Tinkertoys just yet:

As an English major from a furniture family (no joke) I do have to express my discontent that Tinkertoys are now apparently all plastic. Roland Barthes, from Mythologies:

The bourgeois status of toys can be recognized not only in their forms, which are all functional, but also in their substances. Current toys are made of a graceless material, the product of chemistry, not of nature. Many are now moulded from complicated mixtures; the plastic material of which they are made has an appearance at once gross and hygienic, it destroys all the pleasure, the sweetness, the humanity of touch. A sign which fills one with consternation is the gradual disappearance of wood, in spite of its being an ideal material because of its firmness and its softness, and the natural warmth of its touch. Wood removes, from all the forms which it supports, the wounding quality of angles which are too sharp, the chemical coldness of metal. When the child handles it and knocks it, it neither vibrates nor grates, it has a sound at once muffled and sharp. It is a familiar and poetic substance, which does not sever the child from close contact with the tree, the table, the floor. Wood does not wound or break down; it does not shatter, it wears out, it can last a long time, live with the child, alter little by little the relations between the object and the hand. If it dies, it is in dwindling, not in swelling out like those mechanical toys which disappear behind the hernia of a broken spring. Wood makes essential objects, objects for all time. Yet there hardly remain any of these wooden toys from the Vosges, these fretwork farms with their animals, which were only possible, it is true, in the days of the craftsman. Henceforth, toys are chemical in substance and color; their very material introduces one to a coenaesthesis of use, not pleasure. These toys die in fact very quickly, and once dead, they have no posthumous life for the child.

It’s a shame. But I guess we do have IKEA.

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