I wrapped up my visit to The Ohio State University Archives today. (And I’m already planning my next trip to a university archives – that would be Harvard in May.)

Among the materials I went through today were the correspondences between Sidney Pressey and several manufacturing companies, as he tried to convince someone to help him bring his “Automatic Teacher” to market. He finally settled on W. M. Welch Manufacturing Company, which agreed to work with him.

Most companies responded to Pressey’s inquiries that they couldn’t imagine a market for machines. They might have been right – Pressey struggled not only to get the device built to his specifications. He struggled to sell them to schools.

It’s not a particularly happy story. Pressey’s health suffered, and his marriage fell apart. After years struggling to get the machine to market, W. M. Welch discontinued the product in 1937 – some 11 years after Pressey first demoed the device at a American Psychological Association meeting. Less than 200 were ever sold.

Perhaps Pressey was just too early with his invention. A decade or so later, the teaching machine became popular again (briefly), thanks in part to their association with Harvard’s B. F. Skinner, thanks in part to Americans’ post-War commitment to education gadgetry.

I took a lot of notes while at the archives. I took a lot of photos. (The iPhone makes a decent scanning device.) I will spend the evening going through things, turning those photos into PDFs, for example. And making sure everything has tags so I can find it all easily.

I plan to use Pressey’s story for my sample chapter I’m writing for Sam Freedman’s class. Thank goodness there are still a few more days of Spring Break…

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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