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Day 3 of my archival work was the hardest so far. (Here are updates from Days 1 and 2.) It is just so exhausting to sit for hours on end going through boxes and boxes of papers – trying to move as quickly as possible, trying to figure out if a name sounds familiar or if a document is worth photographing. My back hurts, my kidneys hurt (that is what happens when you can’t have water next to you and don’t get up to pee for hours on end.)

I changed course a little today, putting aside my work on Boxes 1 thru 35 of Skinner’s correspondence to move to the 3 boxes on correspondence relating to teaching machines. (There have been letters about the teaching machines throughout the other boxes too. I have made it through 10 of those.)

The chapter I’ve written based on my research at OSU involves Sidney Pressey’s failed attempts to commercialize his teaching machine. And even though there was clearly much more public awareness and public interest in education gadgetry 30-some-odd years later when Skinner tried to do something similar, he also struggled to bring his machine to market. (I am actually not sure yet if the focus of this book is going to be on these commercial struggles. I need to see what the other inventors' experiences were, in part.)

It’s no surprise, of course, that technology firms overpromise then under-deliver. IBM. Harcourt Brace. Rheem Manufacturing. Skinner had deals and had problems with all of them.

One of the things that’s striking about Skinner’s experiences, I think – and one of the ways it was so different from Pressey’s – is that he had lawyers and funding and the Harvard name to throw about. And he was still unable to capitalize on his idea. (Others sure tried to. Grolier salespeople, for example, seemed to use Skinner’s name when they sold encyclopedias and teaching machines door-to-door even though the machine they were selling wasn’t built by or approved of by Skinner.) Some of the deals Skinner struck seemed like they might have been quite lucrative; and I’ll have to add it all up all the numbers once I’m done going through all these contracts and letters. But with the canceled deals and voided contracts, I don’t know if he ever made as much money off of the teaching machines as he thought he should.

Pressey, of course, made next to nothing. He complained that trying to manufacture the teaching machines nearly destroyed his health, his career. Skinner, on the other hand, comes out of the marketing-teaching-machines debaucle pretty unscathed – reputation intact.

(Until he writes Beyond Freedom and Dignity, that is. But I haven’t got to those materials yet. Not sure I will tomorrow either.)

Audrey Watters


Published

Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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