Saturday, January 9, 2016

Card catalogs

It seems just like yesterday that I was going to the library, looking up books in the card catalog, and seeing where they were cataloged based on the Dewey Decimal system. Now, it's all obsolete and gone. But, not to worry, these memories will be kept alive in the RetroEdTech museum at the VocabularySpellingCity headquarters. This past week, courtesy of a local school, we obtained an original old style school library card catalog.
School Library cart catalog
Card Catalog

These card catalogs enabled students to look up books by subject, author, or name and then locate them on the shelves using the amazing Dewey Decimal System. The Dewey Decimal System is a library classification system developed by Melvil Dewey in 1876 and regularly revised since then. The Decimal Classification introduced the concepts of relative location and relative index which allow new books to be added to a library in their appropriate location based on subject. The classification's notation makes use of three-digit numbers for main classes, with fractional decimals allowing expansion for further detail.

Do you follow the TV program, the Big Bang Theory? If you do, you've probably noticed that Sheldon's and Leonard's room features a card catalog in back.  I keep wondering when it's going to become part of the plot.

Card Catalog in Sheldon & Leonards Room
Card Catalog in Sheldon & Leonards Room
The Media Centers of old, prior to the digital revolution were packed with both reference and literature materials.   RetroEdTech has these posts on those topics:

Encyclopedia and Dictionaries in School Libraries

Golden Book informational books and stories were read by tens of millions:

Back Cover of Golden Books: The Golden Library of Knowledge
Back Cover of Golden Books: The Golden Library of Knowledge

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Overhead Projector, Edison Old Record Player, Polaroid

Here's my most recent acquisitions for I drove around this weekend and stopped at a few local antique stores and wow, look what I found!

After lots of searching, I finally bought an overhead projector on Ebay. We used these through school and college and through half of my professional career (if you are sharp you can figure out my age from that!).
Overhead Projector for Transparencies

I also bought in a junk store a really old record player. It's not really a record player since the "records" are rolls. I think it was the original device invented by Edison. I haven't had a chance to really try it or research it yet but I'm super psyched. It's called Edison Gold Molded Records.

Edison Gold Molded Records
Edison Phonograph Cylinders

I started reading about it on the University of California website. Here's a little info:

The "Gold-Moulded" process, developed in 1902, significantly ameliorated these limitations (ed: uneven quality, limited number of quality copies etc). The process involved creating a metal mould from a wax master; a brown wax blank could then be put inside the resulting mould and subjected to a preestablished and precisely calibrated level of heat. As the blank expanded, the grooves would be pressed into the blank, and after cooling, the newly moulded cylinder could be removed from the mould. The "gold" from its namesake is derived from the trace levels of the metal that were applied as a conductive agent in creating the initial mould from the wax master.
With Edison Gold-Moulded cylinders, playback speed was standardized at 160 revolutions per minute (RPM). The number of grooves on gold-moulded cylinders remained the same as for brown wax cylinders, at 100 TPI, or threads per inch.

I've also bought this weekend two more school desks.

And I bought an old chemistry set.

And a very old Polaroid Land Camera with a big old fashioned flash.  A special call-out and thanks to Neil of JamesRoss Advertising who is a valued subcontractor for us and who found and donated this treasure to the collection.
(PS His firm is in no way responsible for the design of this blog. That is entirely my fault!)

Although I didn't buy it, I did take a picture of this old movie projector from a theater in Colorado that I visited last week. I did try to buy the equipment but apparently, it's not for sale.  Of course, I can't wait to get onto Ebay and see what is possible.


Lastly, I have bid on a number of old telephone switch boards on Ebay but I haven't bought one yet. Stay tuned for that too.

Monday, June 1, 2015

Record Players in Every Classroom

When I was in school (the 60s and 70s), there was a record player in a beige box in every single classroom.

This one is a Newcomb solid state record player. There are three speeds: 33, 45, and 78. The 33 was the dominant speed used for LP (long play) full size records. The 45 and 78 were used for little records or "singles", as in a single song.

It is my impression that every classroom that I was in had the same model. This was my impression, does anyone have any statistics on whether it's true? Did Necomb just have a dominant market share in my part of the country (DC) or did they have record players in every classroom in every school nationwide? Or were there multiple vendors of beige record players in a box?

I think these were a standard in classrooms right up to the end of the century (I can't tell you how weird it is to say that about the year 2000!).

The record players were often used as the sound track with the educational filmstrips that were also in use at that time.  While the record player stayed in the classroom, the filmstrip projector, hte movie projector,a nd the overhead projector were kept in the AV closet and brought to our room on the AV cart by the AV aides.

Friday, March 27, 2015

The Thinking Machine circa 1961

This film is very late 50s, early 60s. Black and white, there's an actor talking to an MIT Professor about digital computers about these new "thinking" machines. The words computer and digital were very exotic at that point.

It's from the “Tomorrow” television series produced by CBS for MIT for MIT’s Centennial in 1961.  Film courtesy of

Wednesday, January 28, 2015

The Poky Little Puppy

Poky Little Puppy Golden Book
The Poky Little Puppy Golden Book
When I was little, my mom would read me this story or sometimes, she would put on the record of the Poky Little Puppy. I remember it as a gem of a book.

As  look around the web, I realize that this little book is extremely well-known.  Many sites include this same phrase:

One of the original 12 Little Golden Books published in 1942, The Poky Little Puppy has sold nearly 15 million copies since 1942, making it one of the most popular children’s books of all time. Now this curious little puppy is ready to win the hearts and minds of a new generation of kids...It written by   Janette Sebring Lowrey and illustrated by Gustaf Tenggren.
"Don't Ever Dig Holes Under this Fence"  from The Poky Little Puppy
"Don't Ever Dig Holes Under this Fence"
from The Poky Little Puppy

My memory of parts of the book runs deep:

And when they got to the top fo the hill, they counted themselves: one, two, three, four. One little puppy wasn't there...

"Now where in the world is that poky little puppy?" they wondered. For he certainly wasn't on top of the hill....

And down they went to see, roly-poly, pell-mell, tumble-bumble, till they came to the green grass...

"So you're the little puppies who dig holes under fences!" she said. "No rise pudding tonight!" And she made them go straight to bed."

See related articles on Little Golden Books and Big Little Books.

Friday, November 28, 2014

Vintage School Desks

We all went to school and we all sat at school desks.   We sat at school desks for hours and hours, days and days, weeks and weeks, months and months, and years and years.

We started sitting at school desks in kindergarten and sat at them for the thirteen years of K-12. I added four more years sitting at school desks for college and then two more for grad school.

Schools desks come in many shapes and sizes.  An amazing moment for many adults is when they visit a kindergarten and they see the teeny tiny little desks. It's hard to imagine how tiny we once were.

One thing that all the school desks seem to have in common is how industrial strength they were.  Strong enough to stand up to years of leaning and banging.  In the old days, they were attached to the floor. I have several in which the back of one row of school desk is the desk for the row behind them.

Contemporary School Desk
When I think about school desks, I remember an odd but true story.

Rural Classroom in Sangmelima, Cameroon, Africa
When I was in my early 20s, I lived in a small town in Southern Cameroon called Sangmelima. I was a Peace Corps Volunteer.  There was another volunteer in my town who was friends with a local carpenter who we called "Uncle."  Uncle was a little less than responsible and he had a few kids and a wife with a very sharp tongue. One day as we stopped by, we heard her chewing him out for failing to come up with the money for the school fees, apparently their boy had just been sent home from school since the fees were overdue.

Vintage School Desk
Vintage School Desk 
The other volunteer and I quickly loaned him money for the fees and walked with him and his son back to the school to sort things out.

It turns out the problem wasn't just the fees but as the teacher explained and pointed out, she had thirty desks and thirty students. Although he now had the cash, the seats were quite literally, all full.  So Uncle turned on the charm and she finally agreed that if she had more desks and chairs, she would accept the boy back into school. So we went back to Uncles house and it only took him a few hours to build another four school desks. We marched them over to school, set them up, and she accepted him back into school.

When I was young, I went to school  in London and one of our subjects was penmanship.  We had fountain pens that we would fill up with ink from the ink wells and try to carefully copy over our lessons. I was terrible. Ink would blot, I'd have ink all over my hands and sometimes on my desk and clothes. And that was on the days when I was trying not to make a mess, not counting the moments when they would leave us alone and we would flick ink at each other.

Thursday, November 27, 2014

School: a noun and verb but not an adjective?

I've spent a lot of time recently thinking and talking about the word 'school.'  In a meeting , I insisted that the word 'school' could be used as an adjective. (BTW, I run VocabularySpellingCity where I have also blogged about School: Can it be an adjective?)
What sort of bus? What describes the bus?

I was in disagreement with a language arts teacher with close to three decades of teaching experience who was arguing it could only be a noun.  She had set up a multiple choice question asking what part of speech "school" was. I argued that there were three right answers and that it was archaic form of question (It should only be asked about a word where it is shown used in context and even then, it's ... well, that's another topic).

I spoke with some confidence: "What about school days, school bus, school boy, school books? What sorts of books would these be? They are school books. And besides, lets pull up Merriam Webster and I'll show you....Wow, I'll be....Merriam Webster lists 'school" as a noun and a verb but not as an adjective!  OK, lets try another..."  The same thing!  I was stupified, stumped, flummoxed, and dumbfounded.

The first two dictionaries that I pulled up online both listed 'school" as a noun or a verb, (ie "Would you like to be schooled in the use of dictonaries?); but neither acknowledged the use of 'school' as an adjective. Entry

Finally, I found which mentions the use of school in three ways: noun, adjective, and verb.  This seemed obvious to me but I was now aware that there was room for disagreement.

What to make of Merriam Webster? What do they think about the 'school bus'?

Merriam lists 'school bus' as a noun. ("School Bus." Merriam-Webster, n.d. Web. 27 Nov. 2014. < bus>). In this format, they presumably consider it to be an open form compound word. Open Form Compound Word? VocabularySpellingCity explains half-way down the compound word page (BTW, I might have had a hand in writing the page, I don't really remember): 

Open form Compound Word: The words are open but when read together, a new meaning is formed. EXAMPLES: post office, real estate, full moon, half sister.

Which brings me to the point: 

When is a word a compound word and when is it just an adjective with a noun?  
School Desk, a type of desk?

The answer lies in this concept of whether a new meaning has been formed.

Real estate. I would agree that real when used with estate forms a new meaning that is not clear from just thinking of real as an adjective.

Post office is not really a type of office at all, it's a type of retail outlet so it's clearly a compound word and not an adjective noun combination. 

Full Moon?  But could full be an adjective describing the moon?  For me, the answer is no since the moon does not fill up at all like a glass or gas tank. Fullness, in this case, is a weird metaphor so for me, there's a new meaning when the words are combined. Hence, full moon is a compound word. Still, this one is a little gray since there are degrees of fullness of the moon which in my mind, tilts it back towards being an adjective with a noun.


So, back to school:

Is a school bus just a type of bus?  IMHO Yes.
Is a school book just a type of book?  IMHO Yes.
What about a school desk, is it a type of desk?   IMHO, Yes.
Is school work just a type of work?  IMHO Maybe.
Is a school house just a type of house? IMHO NO, it's not a house at all. 
Is a school boy or a school girl (btw, that's one of the most searched terms on the internet....don't ask...uhg) just a type of boy or girl?  IMHO Maybe.
School day? A type of day? Maybe
School half day? This is an expression we throw around. Is Wednesday before Thanksgiving, a school half day?  Is half day a single open form compound word? What about school half day?

So there's some black and white cases of school being used as an adjective such as with bus or book. There's some definite compound words made with the word school such as school house. And there are some gray areas where I'm not sure and I'd have to consult greater authorities.  But, if Merriam Webster is unwilling to acknowledge that school could ever be used as an adjective then I (the Mayor of VocabularySpellingCity) am getting a little unsure of who this greater authority will be.  Maybe my Mom or brothers, all of whom seem to know grammar so much better than me. 

Of course, none of this matters. As the Common Core implies, students can become great writers and readers without knowing how to categorize parts of speech or diagram sentences.  And since teaching semantics and grammar does not really seem to be lighting up the student population or improving literacy, lets try de-emphasizing it. I'd agree that only the word nerds among us would care about the above discussion and so trying to teach it and get students to care about it is not the future of education.    

Or...maybe...there's other views.  Anyone?

About this blog. This blog is a personal blog of John, the founder of VocabularySpellingCity. Currently, this blog highlights vintage educational technology which have been collected in the VocabularySpellingCity office such as school desks, Golden Books, Dictionaries and Encyclopedias,  mimeograph machines, and film strips (is it just me or does every title in that list taunt me to classify it as to whether it's a compound word or not).  This post is a throwback to an earlier era on this blog when Miss Suzy, a colleague wrote about language with popular article such as:  S.O.S. -- Abrasion vs. Cut vs. ScratchAre you Prominent, Eminent or Either or Neither?Estimate and Esteem, and Clean Up Your Use of Guest.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

Big Little Books

I was given this Big Little Book years ago by my mother.  But I only learned last week what it was.

I learned about Big Little Books thanks to Larry Lowery. He is a professor emeritus at the University of California at Berkeley. He is affiliated with the Graduate School of Education for his research and with the Lawrence Hall of Science for his curriculum products. As luck would have it, he was next to me in the registration line at the recent NSTA show. We started chatting. I told him about Science4Us, he told me about FOSS.  We did some card tricks.

All of the material on this post is from Larry's website:

Dick Tracy In 1932 the seemingly paradoxical term Big Little Book® was given to certain books published by the Whitman Publishing Company of Racine, Wisconsin. The term promised the buyer a great amount of reading material and pleasure (BIG) within a small and compact (LITTLE) book. These Whitman books set the standards for similar books, and Whitman's copyrighted description has become popularized in a generic way to umbrella similar books.

The Whitman BLBs look like a four-inch block sawed off the end of a two-by-four. They were 3 5/8" x 4 1/2" x 1 1/2" in size and 432 pages in length. The outstanding feature of the books was the captioned picture opposite each page of text. The books originally sold for a dime (later 15¢).

Many children learned to read and have an appreciation for all books because of their experiences with BLBs. The source material for the books was drawn mostly from radio, comic strips, and motion pictures.

Larry's website categorizes the history in three periods (Golden, 1932-38; Silver, 1938-49; Modern 1950 to present), lists collectors and clubs, and has a host of articles about Big Little Books. Check it out at

On a related book, this blog also has an article about the Little Golden Books.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Speak and Spell

Before SpellingCity, there was Speak N Spell
Thirty years before was launched, spelling, for most kids, was not F-U-N.

The fun revolution started  in1978 with the introduction of Texas Instruments' innovative educational electronic toy, Speak & Spell.

Speak N SpellI was eight years old the Christmas that Speak & Spell made an appearance on many-a-list to Santa. Always a "word nerd," my parents apparently didn't think I needed any extra help with spelling, so instead of Speak & Spell, I got a Little Professor from Santa instead. (math was never my strong suit).

 My friend, Jennifer, however, got a Speak & Spell...and it was awesome! Its computerized voice made it sound like a futuristic robot. We used it not only to play spelling games ourselves, but as a giant game show board for our Barbies, a la "Wheel of Fortune." Ahhhh...memories.

Despite references to it in movies like "Toy Story" over the years, I had all but forgotten about Speak & Spell. Several weeks ago, however, I came across a post on Facebook about the toy and  nostalgis hit big time.

I knew that other children of the '70s and '80s could relate, so I shared a photo of the original Speak & Spell on SpellingCity's Facebook page. The post was a hit, drawing nearly 2,000 likes, 250 shares and 95 comments!

Upon seeing my post about Speak & Spell, John (a.k.a. the Mayor of SpellingCity) asked where he could get one for his retro ed tech collection. In his teens when Speak & Spell was released, John wasn't familiar with the SpellingCity of the 1970s. He was thrilled to receive not only an original Speak & Spell as a Hanukkah gift, but a Speak & Math as well!

Technology has changed a whole lot in the past 35 years. recently introduced five new games, bringing our total offering up to 30 games (with full graphics and feedback)! But, then again we all like to wax nostalgic once in a while don't we?

Just think, some day our children will be saying, "Hey, remember That was a lot of fun, wasn't it?"

Saturday, July 20, 2013

The Elementary School Audio Visual Crew: Few and Proud

One of the great online journalists of our time has a secret. 

Before he became famous and way before being geeky was considered cool, he was already being pulled by the force into the technology world!

I'll be plain: Back in Somerset Elementary school in the late 60s and early 70s, he was a proud member of the Somerset Elementary School A/V [audio visual] crew!

They had special privileges and responsibilities.

While the rest of us were kept in our classroom, they could roam the halls looking for the green carts of AV equipment.

While I would have had to break my leg to be allowed to go in the school elevator, they routinely rode up and down with their cargo.

Film strip projectors, overhead projectors, and 16" film projectors; they could do it all. He writes:

I Got very nostalgic about film strips & being a member of the Somerset AV crew (I got to go into different classrooms & thread the 16mm projector). & one of my very first pieces of writing for hire: How to pre-master a videodisc. Exciting stuff.

Did your school have a special AV crew of students? Were you one of them?

Monday, April 22, 2013

Many Bridges Crossed, Miles to Go Before We Sleep

Most of this content is reprinted from a blog  (with permission) by Miles MacFarlane. His original title was "20+ Years of EdTech."  He has taught for twenty years. I've always liked Frost's poem and somehow, it became the subject of this post. Mr. MacFarlane wrote:

I have used every one of these devices in fulfillment of my duties as a classroom teacher. These were the tools available to me since I became an educator. It makes me feel rather old, but proud nonetheless, to have mastered these valuable communication technologies for teaching and learning.

And some say today's technology is too complicated.

Want to talk about that?

Thursday, April 18, 2013

New Educational Technology Promises Joy and Faster Learning

Ed Tech Advertisement, circa ~1963
Larry Cuban, a Stanford professor, pulled together a great article which looks at the promise and attitudes towards new educational technology as revealed in the advertising.

Published on the Education Week site, it says:

For more than a century, educational technology ads have glistened with hope. Newly invented devices from the typewriter to film projectors, from the overhead projector to instructional television, from the Apple IIe to the iPad, have painted pictures of engaged students who will learn more, faster, and better. They have pictured teachers using new technologies to teach effectively. Of course, it is the nature of advertising to promise a rosier future, appealing to what policymakers, administrators, and, yes, parents yearn for ... a better, easier, and even enjoyable way for teachers and students to teach and learn. And that is what these ads do. They assure readers that both teachers and students will be better off using these machines.

Great article, well done Larry.  Note to self, need to secure an overhead projector and an Apple IIe

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Encyclopedia and Dictionary

I grew up in a house with a big dictionary on a stand and a complete set of the 1962 World Book Encyclopedia.  The actual dictionary and stand are pictured below (that's not actually me or my old house, it's my nephew at my Mom's new condo).  I recently acquired a complete World Book Encyclopedia set identical to the one that I grew up with.

When I was in school, one of the key ingredients of every classroom was a dictionary and every school library was built around its encyclopedia, atlas, and other reference works.  To this day, the accrediting institutions still list the library with its book collection and reference materials as a key issue.

With a sweet sense of irony, I just looked up "encyclopedia" on Wikipedia and found:

...The beginnings of the modern idea of the general-purpose, widely distributed printed encyclopedia precede the 18th century encyclopedists. However, Chambers' Cyclopaedia, or Universal Dictionary of Arts and Sciences (1728), and the Encyclop√©die of Diderot and D'Alembert (1751 onwards), as well as Encyclop√¶dia Britannica and the Conversations-Lexikon, were the first to realize the form we would recognize today, with a comprehensive scope of topics, discussed in depth and organized in an accessible, systematic method... 

In the United States, the 1950s and 1960s saw the introduction of several large popular encyclopedias, often sold on installment plans. The best known of these were World Book and Funk and Wagnalls... By the late 20th century, encyclopedias were being published on CD-ROMs for use with personal computers. Microsoft's Encarta, launched in 1993...The 21st century has seen the dominance of wikis as popular encyclopedias, including Wikipedia among many others.
Random House Dictionary of English Language
Random House Dictionary of English Language

 Encyclopedia Britannica  -- at its peak, had around 2,300 in the sales force....A year ago this week, the last salesman for Britannica, Myron Taxman, retired.  He was 66. He began selling the encyclopedia at the age of 22, when he was still in college in Chicago. He sold the volumes for 28 years: to farmers and to new parents without much money, to a Bears quarterback and to film director John Hughes.  (Encyclopedia Britannica Salesman Mourns End Of Print Edition)
Another memorable aspect of the encyclopedia era was the door-to-door salesman who sold them.  A surprising number of people of my generation spent some time selling them.

What did the standards say about using reference works and finding them with alphabetical order?

Language Arts: K
Information and Media Literacy
Research Process: The student uses a systematic process for the collection, processing, and presentation of information. (LA.K.6.2)
The student will:
1. ask questions and recognize the library media specialist or teacher as an information source; (LA.K.6.2.1)
2. use simple reference resources to locate and obtain information through knowledge of alphabetical order, use of pictures, and environmental print (e.g., signs, billboards); (LA.K.6.2.2)

Language Arts: 2
Information and Media Literacy
Research Process: The student uses a systematic process for the collection, processing, and presentation of information. (LA.2.6.2)
The student will:
1. generate research questions by brainstorming, identify key words, group related ideas, and select appropriate resources (e.g., atlases, non-fiction books, dictionaries, digital references); (LA.
2. select and use a variety of appropriate reference materials to gather information and locate information using alphabetical order; (LA.

And who can talk about reference materials and refer to media centers or libraries without going back to the card catalogs and the Dewey Decimal System.