Hal (hal_obrien) wrote,

"Lectron Electronic Dominoes"

So Slate had a piece about AskMeFi.com called "When the hive mind works, it's a beautiful thing." I've been a registered user of Metafilter.com since -- whoa, my profile says 2000. Still, I'd never asked a question.

Here's what I asked as a test -- one of the most elusive pieces of information I've been after for years:

Does anyone else remember this toy, an electronic set of building blocks, or is it just in my faulty memory? Who was the manufacturer? What was the trade name? (How do I search for it on eBay? :)

When I was in elementary school in the mid-1970s, there was a toy we had that I liked a lot. It was designed to teach about electronics. There were roughly cubical pieces of plastic that adhered together using magnetic interfaces, all of them also sticking magnetically to a metal plate. The top surface was white, with the schematic diagram symbol etched into the piece in black. The underside was clear plastic, so you could see the component inside (resistor, capacitor, whatever). One way to think of it is as a version of Radio Shack's "10,000 in One" electronic sets, but those used loose wires that were connected together using springs. Because this toy was built to more closely resemble building blocks, it came across as much more graphically elegant. The manual was a set of schematics -- you'd assemble the diagram using the blocks, and voila! you'd have made some gizmo.

Within 30 minutes someone had correctly identified it, and also given a link to the current manufacturer.

aubilenon provided a link to an article correctly describing them -- "Lectron Electronic Dominoes". He then also found a set on eBay, for the current bid of $71.45. Just a few minutes later, he gave a pointer to the German manufacturer of Lectron, which is still a going concern.

With that info I started Googling, and found this page with some home made photos, showing a set in a wooden carry case like a pool cue, or a go-ban, or mah jongg. Interesting updating of the story:

"The brand Lectron and the design of the educational system Lectron has been developed in Switzerland around 1960. The german firm Braun acquired the product and sold the enhanced system in a nice new design. Lectron became an independent firm in the middle of the seventies and the system was enhanced even more. In 2001 the brand and product Lectron was donated to an organisation for disabled people and is still being produced and enhanced."

Looking at the German website... I don't really read German, but I can sometimes puzzle things out. On the menu bar on the right hand side, "Neues" means "New" -- and it seems they just announced a set for "Neurophysiologie." "Elementar" is a cognate for "Elements," and seems to list the multiple families of sets they have -- "Start-System," "Opto- und Solartechnik," "Digitaltechnik," and "Radio-Technik" among the easier to guess at (thank god for linguistic imperialism).

In that classic German engineering way, it looks like they've been building the things all these (40+!) years in between, and constantly adding with small, incremental improvements. Someone on the first site pointed to mentions it was a shame they've never hooked up with LEGO, and I'd agree, if only for marketing reach. And the fun thing is, schematics are language-independent.

I would never have thought of using "dominoes" as the descriptor, but given the laying them out end-to-end aspect, I can see where the idea came from.

Turns out $70 on eBay isn't a bad deal, because I found the current price list (note: .PDF file) on the lectron.de site. The "Start-System" goes for €175 and it spirals from there.

But what's fun is, the list goes on for eight pages because they've priced the blocks a la carte. No idea who'd sell them that way (or where I can find a retailer at all), but interesting they're prepared for it.

Wow. The end of something of a grail quest for me. Many has been the time over the years when I've tormented toy shop owners from coast-to-coast, as they invariably say, "That sounds like a great idea, especially these days with computers, but I have no idea what you're talking about."


UPDATED TO ADD: Here's a great page about Lectron blocks at a very cool science education site. I call it out, though, because it has examples of the schematics:

* A simple circuit to light an LED with two batteries.
* A simple voltage divider with a meter
* A small AM radio transmitter.
* Digital logic circuitry.
* A simple FM radio receiver.


Here's the sad story of how not to get a set of Lectron blocks as a kid (hint: don't open the wrapping too soon).


A surreptitious reprint of an article from the September 1967 issue of Electronics Illustrated about Lectron blocks. Useful not only for the contemporary account, but also for the picture of the transparent plastic on the underside, letting you see the components.


A Japanese system called Gakken EX. Wikipedia has a page, and here's their own (in Japanese).


An LJ'er mentions Lectron in passing, while the post is mostly about a way cool tube-based kit.
Tags: ancient mysteries, education, electronics, euro, euro symbol, hive mind, learning, lectron, nostalgia, schematics, school days, toys

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