With the technological boom of the twentieth century came unprecedented advancements and innovations, the most remarkable of which was arguably the computer. The potential wasn’t lost on toy manufacturers as computers entered the public consciousness. By the end of the 1970s, electronic play-things began to populate the marketplace.
Where most toy-makers sought to create toys that allowed children to play, Dr. Michael J. Freeman had other ideas. He recognized an opportunity to both entertain and educate. Enter 2-XL, the robotic 8-track player modeled for fun and learning.
Corporate mucky-mucks (as they are sometimes wont to do) resisted the idea of an educational toy. Seeing potential in a child’s impetus to willingly learn, however, the Mego Corporation (who had already made a name for themselves with a spiffy line of action figures) agreed to produce 2-XL in 1978. Freeman’s concept came to life in a small 8-track tape deck encased in hard, brown plastic. 2-XL had all the trimmings of a late-70s robot: the flashing, yellow light bulb eyes, the blocky shape identified with computers at the time, and the electronic voice (brought to life by Freeman himself). In fact, throughout the project, Freeman remained hands on, designing almost every facet of the toy wonder himself.
2-XL’s genius manifested itself the moment the specially-made 8-track tapes were inserted into its midsection. With the push of a conspicuous button on top of 2-XL’s head, the foot-tall robot would come to electronic life with the words, Thank you for turning me on. I am 2-XL. Subjects such as Challenges of General Science, Guinness Book of World Records, or Wonders of the World, would then follow as blips and bloops and other sound effects gave the impression of an engaged and enthusiastic electronic friend.
Featuring a series of four buttons in his chest, 2-XL allowed the child to interact according to his questions. The farthest button to the left was the “question” button, followed in sequence by Yes or True, or More Info, or No or False. On many tapes, these buttons would change thanks to specially made overlay cards. As one can imagine, 2-XL would quiz each child with multiple choice, true-false, or yes-no teasers and brain-benders. Not that a kid minded. 2-XL’s humanistic voice and friendly-manner, not to mention his harmless wise-cracks, could engage a child for hours. With every answer, 2-XL would whiz and whirr and inform the child if he/she was correct or not, and supply additional information. Near the end of each tape, however, 2-XL’s endurance would wane and it would wrap things up with a final question and a polite request to “please turn me off now.”
Expanding beyond the informative and into the competitive, Freeman’s designs allowed users to challenge 2-XL to mind-honing games such as tic-tac-toe and checkers. If a child should want 2-XL’s company without the mental stimulation, that prerogative lie simply in inserting any normal music tape into the robot, which also acted admirably as an 8-track player.
Although Mego 2-XL only lasted for about four years with total of fifty tapes released, the concept has seen innumerable reincarnations in toys and computer software. Tiger Toys even resurrected a newly designed 2-XL in 1992 that used cassettes instead of 8-track tapes. The legacy of 2-XL is the very name that Dr. Freeman created for his wonderbot: 2-XL was not just a generic numeric robot ID, but a lofty goal to which all children could aspire to excel.
If you spent a few hours being challenged by 2-XL back in the day, we welcome your thoughts and memories in our comments section. Meanwhile, a tip of hat is due to our electronic friend and his dedication towards educating the young masses.