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TELEVAC 86000 / CENTAURI-68000, South Carolina State Fair: 2012   38 comments

Posted at 11:32 pm in Uncategorized

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Once upon a time, computers were magical devices, "Electronic Brains", spoken of with tinges of awe and fear. See for instance the classic Hepburn / Tracy movie Desk Set. Nobody, in their day-to-day lives would expect to see a computer, and few people had any idea what they actually looked like. Everybody was sure, however, that they involved lots of blinking lights (and tape drives moving forever back and forth).

That first actually wasn't far from the truth. Early computers did have many lights, often signifying bits in various registers and program counters. They also had toggle switches (like the much missed computer in the old Columbia Science Museum) for setting all those bits.

The illuminated front panels of early computers loomed large enough in techie culture that you often found variations of the following sign posted in a computer room:


ACHTUNG!
ALLES TURISTEN UND NONTEKNISCHEN LOOKENPEEPERS!
DAS KOMPUTERMASCHINE IST NICHT FÜR DER GEFINGERPOKEN UND MITTENGRABEN!
ODERWISE IST EASY TO SCHNAPPEN DER SPRINGENWERK, BLOWENFUSEN UND POPPENCORKEN MIT SPITZENSPARKSEN.
IST NICHT FÜR GEWERKEN BEI DUMMKOPFEN. DER RUBBERNECKEN SIGHTSEEREN KEEPEN DAS COTTONPICKEN HÄNDER IN DAS POCKETS MUSS.
ZO RELAXEN UND WATSCHEN DER BLINKENLICHTEN.

and the portmanteau word blinkenlights permanently entered the hacker lexicon.

So people were interested, a bit awed and a bit scared by the idea of computers, and had only a very general idea of what they could do and how they looked. Thus: The TELEVAC 86000.

This amiable faux computer has been making the rounds for as long as I can remember, which is to say, at least since 1965 or so, and probably prior to that. Every year, it would set up shop in the Steel Building or the Ruff Building and dazzle the passers by. How could you possibly doubt a handwriting analysis from the TELEVAC 86000? IT'S A COMPUTER! IT'S SCIENCE! IT HAS BLINKING LIGHTS!

While we never did spring for the analysis when my parents took us to the fair back in the day, I have the feeling that at the time, this wonder of technology dispensed pre-printed cards dissecting your penmanship -- certainly there were no portable printers available for such a travelling roadshow.

As the years went on, the TELEVAC did add a printer, and astrological predictions as well as handwriting analysis, but the basic blinkenlights front panel stayed fundamentally unaltered, even through the name change to the less antique sounding CENTAURI-68000.

By the time I actually dropped $3.00 in 2012, the whole concept was not too credible. Whereas in 1965, nobody had seen a computer, much less had a computer, and the blinkenlights represented (to this 5 year old anyway) the apex of science, by 2012 most everybody (including lots of the 5 year olds) had a computer, and everybody knew what one looked like.

Sad to say, the TELEVAC / CENTAURI did not make an appearance at the 2013 State Fair, and I'm afraid it is the end of an era.

Written by ted on October 21st, 2013

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