☞ General Turtle, Inc. and Educational Machines
In praise of the General Single-Purpose Machine
In the 1970’s, there was a computer company called General Turtle, Inc. As per the Computer History Wiki:
General Turtle was a company spun off from the MIT Logo group, the first to make floor turtles. It later made Turtle Terminal 2500 and the 3500. It moved to Canada, under the name Societe General Tortue, where the 3500 was commercialized as a word processor.
In case that brief description is not clear, this company originally made physical robot turtles that used the programming language Logo, before eventually moving to terminals focused on the Logo language (and then eventually to word processors).
One of the company’s hemispherical turtles can be seen in this image:
The above image comes from this fascinating discussion of the company and its products (this comment in particular is a treasure trove of information about the history of the companies and people involved).
If you want to see more of what they made, Lars Brinkhoff has developed an emulation of the General Turtle 2500:
And Brinkhoff has even turned the company’s logo into a t-shirt, if you are so inclined to get one.
But why am I writing about General Turtle?
Well, one simple reason is that the name is amazing. It is clearly in the genre of General Atomics, General Motors, and General Magic. But it’s General Turtle. So delightful.
But I also think it’s intriguing as a company form. General Turtle was a hardware startup in the educational technology space. On the surface that doesn’t sound particularly novel. Tech history is littered with these. At the same time, there’s something interesting here, which is a company based on fundamental research used to build a computer geared towards opening minds and changing how people think.
And that computer is also something worth examining. General Turtle made machines that straddled single-purpose hardware and the general-purpose nature of the personal computer. It was focused on the programming language Logo, but Logo itself is a kind of open-ended educational and playful environment. In other words then, General Turtle created a general single-purpose machine.
I’m still thinking about all of this, but it feels provocative as a potential niche worth exploring: a machine that is delimited in its abilities and which gains from these limitations. Other potential historical examples in this category include the Canon Cat, or other types of word processors.
I’ve written before about the need to delve into the history of technology in order to discover ideas that might be worth revisiting. And it seems that there are more modern equivalents here, such as the machines made by Freewrite specifically geared towards drafting text without distractions. Dumb phones too are having a moment.
While in many cases the open-ended power of the computer and smartphone can be wildly useful, perhaps this path of the general single-purpose machine—far from being something that should be left in the evolutionary past of technology—is one that merits reexamination. ■
The Enchanted Systems Roundup
Here are some links worth checking out that touch on the complex systems of our world (both built and natural):
🝤 Seeing Centuries: “It’s really hard to see the broad sweep of history. There’s too many important people, too many events, too many places, too much time. It’s all too overwhelming. I cannot see it all in my head. But I want to.”
🜸 The Computer Scientist Who Can’t Stop Telling Stories: “For pioneering computer scientist Donald Knuth, good coding is synonymous with beautiful expression”
🝳 Lessons from METAFONT: “If you have heard of Metafont, odds are you have become obsessed with it. If you have become obsessed with Metafont, drop me an email and let’s drown our sorrows together.”
🝖 Making A Solar-Powered Billion-Year Lego Clock: This is fantastic.
🜹 AI Is Writing Code Now. For Companies, That Is Good and Bad: “However, some IT executives say that lowering the barrier for code creation could also result in growing levels of complexity, technical debt and confusion as they try to manage a ballooning pile of software.”
🝊 I just bought the only physical encyclopedia still in print, and I regret nothing: “I'm no information prepper, but I'm glad that no matter what happens online, the information inside my World Book set will never change. Sometimes it's nice not to always be magically up to date.”
Until next time.