Computing history in the classroom: The cereal box toy that was an early hacking device, and nuclear weapons systems that depend on floppy disks

follow 3 pngI’m a big fan of using history in the computing classroom. Computing and computing education have rich histories, and as computing is a relatively young discipline, only recently has much of that history started to signifiantly pre-date the lives of the students we teach. I often forget (until I hear myself talking) that most of my students never knew a life without the internet in their pocket and amazing computational power at their fingertips. So I’m always on the lookout for illustrating and interesting stories of simpler times to bring into the classroom.

This story on Atlas Obscura was too much to pass up. It turns out that one of the toys included in boxes of Cap’n Crunch cereal in the 1960’s was a whistle (the Cap’n Crunch Bosun Whistle) that was used by early phreakers to hack analog phone systems. The article also has an interesting sub-story linking this toy to Jobs and Wosniak in their pre-Apple days. Original Cap’n Crunch Bosun Whistles go on ebay for over $100, but there are 3D printed replicas on sale for less than $20. They are even considered museum pieces, with a collection on display at the Telephone Museum in Waltham, Massachusetts. Cap’n Crunch cereal by the way, is is still going strong, and always reminds me of my first summer camp where, as a picky eater without my normal food available, I ‘learned’ to eat Cap’n Crunch, and basically lived on it for several days.

Mid-way through this post I remembered another computing history gem that I use from time to time. As reported here, the number of floppy disks in circulation in the 1990s was somewhere around 5 billion. They are no longer manufactured and thus, there is a finite supply now. Tom Persky, the owner of floppydisk.com is known as the ‘Floppy King’ and makes a living supplying floppy disks to customers in niches that still depend on them, such as the operators of largely antiquated government systems that are still creaking along on decades-old infrastructure, including (as of 2016) US Department of Defence systems that coordinate intercontinental ballistic missiles, nuclear bombers and tanker support aircraft. Scary!

While we are at it, check out this collection of education technologies from the 1900s on Tech Republic that I also came across this week. I would love to play with an old Scantron machine, which are also available on ebay pretty cheap. Like Cap’n Crunch cereal, the Scantron company is also still going strong. Who new!

Ok, I better stop. I’ll leave you with this. The ACM History Committee page has some really interesting resources that are really worth checking out. I wish there were more papers on bringing history to life in the classroom at SIGCSE and other venues. If I can find the bottom of my list of ‘things to do someday’, I’ll put that there. If anyone wants to collaborate, you know where to find me. Until then…

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