These days we have our Nintendo Switches, Playstations, X Boxes, smartphones, and tablets. (I’m actually typing this article on my Christmas present from last year.) Back in the ’80s, in addition to gaming consoles, there were a number of educational electronic toys given as gifts.
Some helped us with core skills like spelling and math. Other toys focused on creative endeavors like music and art. There were also some that provided entertainment in the form of storytelling.
1. Speak and Spell (Texas Instruments)
Reese’s Pieces weren’t the only product to be showcased in the motion picture E.T. The Extra-terrestrial. E.T. uses the “Speak” portion of the Texas Instruments device to communicate with Elliot and Gertie.
I wouldn’t see the movie for a few more years when it came out on VHS, but I did receive one for Christmas. My favorite feature was the “Code” function. Unfortunately, there aren’t any pictures from unwrapping the Speak & Spell as there were with earlier gifts.
One of the things I really like about the Speak & Spell is that it is easy to carry along by the red handle. One of my least favorite features was its muffled robot voice, which sounds particularly antiquated after hearing speech functions on my tablet.
2. Speak & Math (Texas Instruments)
When you have a successful product, you find a way to follow it up with a similar item. Speak & Spell’s success made room for Texas Instruments to add two similarly formatted educational toys.
We had Speak & Math, but it was not as popular in our home as Speak & Spell. Speak & Math was gray and blue. Why did Texas Instruments make the dominant color for this toy one of the dullest colors while red Speak & Spell and yellow Speak & Read had the most vibrant dominant colors?
I loved playing with Speak & Spell and hated playing with Speak & Math to the point where my parents had to threaten to take Speak & Spell away if I didn’t play with Speak & Math. I always wonder if maybe Speak & Math had been more appealing, maybe I would have played with it more and been better with numbers.
3. Major Morgan (Playskool)
Apparently, I was so excited to receive Major Morgan, I couldn’t say the name properly. My mom says that the Christmas I received it, I excitedly told the extended family I had a “Major Organ”. If the Raggedy Ann oven looks familiar, it’s from my article on Food and Kitchen Toys earlier this year.
The top was a drum major’s head and he was wearing a red and yellow hat. The base was blue and there was a slot in the bottom to put in the cards that came with him. Each card had a different song on it with symbols that matched the cords on the keypad base.
Most of the songs on the cards were standard children’s fare like “Old McDonald Had a Farm” or “Twinkle Little Star”. There was also a card to play the M*A*S*H theme, “Suicide is Painless”. It was the early 1980’s and that was a popular television show, but not particularly appropriate for pre-schoolers.
Sometimes I go on my Garage Band app and noodle around with the piano interface.
4. Alphie (Playskool)
Alphie was similar to Major Morgan, but Alphie wasn’t mine. He was my brother’s, but I liked playing with him too. The first time I heard Debussy’s “Claire DeLune” was on an Alphie card. I remember there was an illustration of a swan on the card next to Claire DeLune.
Alphie was larger than Major Morgan and could stand on his own. He always reminded me of an astronaut with his white base. Like Major Morgan, there were cards to slip in and then match patterns to operate the toy.
5. Casey (Playskool)
Around the time Teddy Ruxpin came out, other toy companies made devices that would come with tapes to tell stories. We didn’t have Casey, but the neighbor across the street did. Just like you could put a music tape in Teddy Ruxpin and his mouth would move to music, Casey would do the same.
Casey had an animated face and it was fun to watch him “sing” to Bangles’ “Manic Monday” or Beastie Boys “You’ve Got to Fight (For Your Right To Party)”. Sometimes I would use my tape cassette player at home to record my voice on a tape. The next day, I would take it to my neighbors’ house and we would watch Casey’s face animations sync up to my voice while I was talking.
6. Etch a Sketch Animator (Ohio Art)
The original Etch-a-Sketch is one of the classic childhood toys. I could never draw anything with it that wasn’t either a box or a circle.
The Etch-a-Sketch Animator, on the other hand, made it much easier to create images. In some ways, it reminded me of my mom’s cross-stitch.
I received the Animator when my aunt, uncle, cousins, and grandfather came in from California for a rare visit between Thanksgiving and Christmas. I was in my last year of elementary school, so my memory of this is much sharper than my memories of the toys listed above.
The relatives went shopping with my parents while my brother and I were at school. We came home to a big surprise. I don’t remember what they got for my brother (most likely a truck or Hot Wheels track or something) but in addition to the Etch-a-Sketch Animator, there was also a Chronicles of Narnia box set and the Double Dare “home game”.
The Animator (that was what the opening animation reads when the user turns it on) was in 8-bit style with a light gray background and darker gray pixels. Pressing the Reverse button would give the user a dark gray background with light gray pixels.
I remember playing with The Animator on a TV tray while I sat downstairs watching my favorite shows or movies. The Animator also came with a booklet showing various animation patterns. If I remember correctly, the patterns in the booklet were for the animations shown in the commercial. Thinking about The Animator now, I want to take it out and play with it.