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Deal Me a Card, HAL

April 7, 2007 |  4:12 pm

April 7, 1957
Los Angeles

By Larry Harnisch

In a gathering for newsmen, Caltech staged a demonstration of its "electronic brains." Charles Ray showed off the Royal Precision Electronic Computer LGP-30, a 740-pound "desk computer" with 113 vacuum tubes and 1,350 diodes.

Reporters also saw the enormous direct electric analogy computer, which was being used to simulate a DC-8 jetliner.  

But the star of the show, as displayed by Joel Franklin, was a ElectroData Datatron 205, which, like the LGP-30, had been programmed to play games, in this case, blackjack.

After running through the calculations for a nuclear reactor, Datatron asked: "How many suckers--I mean players?" "The machine dealt four hands by marking the names of the cards down on its typewriter," The Times said. To help the humans determine whether they should ask for another card to fill out their 21, Datatron politely--and without being asked--told them their chances of drawing a card and not going over 21."

Like the serious student who becomes a handsome movie star by removing his horn-rim glasses, the Datatron computers found real fame not by their work in the Boston Navy Yard or a drab insurance office in Minnesota, but on TV and in films.

The Bat Computer? A Datatron. "Lost in Space?" A Datatron. "Angry Red Planet?" "Fantastic Voyage?" "The Computer Wore Tennis Shoes?" All the Datatron. And don't even ask about "Dr. Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine."

Vincent Price, as Dr. Goldfoot, with tape drives from the Datatron, later renamed the Burroughs 205.

One of the Datatron's latest screen appearances? Some of the tape drives turned up in "Austin Powers: The Spy Who Shagged Me."

Read about Caltech's Computer Center here.
Here's the manual, in case you have a B205 in the garage.
And here's the handbook.
Thanks to Burroughs 205 website for some of this information.
ps. I dropped a note to Joel Franklin at Caltech to see if he'd like to share some recollections of the Datatron. I'll let you know what he has to say.
Email me

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