Last week, when I began compiling a list of the teaching machines developed and released from the 1930s thru 1960s, I struggled to find a photo of the Autututor, one of the devices invented by Norman A. Crowder – one of the main characters in my book but also the most difficult to track down.

I found a website that had historical photographs, and believing that I was buying a digital copy of a promo picture, I gave them my $10. Turns out, I was buying the actual photo, which I received in the mail this week.

The back reads: Pictured here is the Western Design Tutor, a new automated “teaching machines” specifically designed to meet the needs to complex industrial and military training programs. Norman T. Crowder, developer of the teaching method used in the Tutor is seen here holding the printed tape that records the rate of progress of a trainee using the Tutor. The recording mechanism notes the time spent on each answer and the answering itself. At left are Clifford W. Sponsel, president of Western Design Division of U. S. Industries, Inc., and Hugh C. Bream, Santa Barbara Division of Western Design. Handwritten below that: 10–59 – October 1959.

The error in that middle initial is an unfortunate one, but I don’t think it’s the reason that Crowder has been almost entirely written out of the history of education technology, mentioned only briefly in many accounts as an alternative to Skinner’s more widely known work on teaching machines. But the reason still might be there in the description of the photo: it’s that the AutoTutor was a machine designed for (or at least marketed as) job training – in corporations but particularly in the military. And neither of those are central to the narrative we are often told about ed-tech, which tends instead to focus on teaching schoolchildren.

Audrey Watters


Teaching Machines

A Hack Education Project

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