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When I'm incredibly tired, I get very chatty and outgoing. I've had lovely conversations with my short-range neurologist, her secretary, the files-and-billing lady at my primary care physician's office, and a furniture salesman today, in which I was scintillatingly witty and drily bantersome in a manner reminiscent of a slightly more loutish, American Stephen Fry (by an odd coincidence). Maybe I should arrange these two-to-three-day broken-field no-sleep-a-thons more often.

And, on top of that, I've remembered something about my early days at school that I must write down before I stagger off and finally go to sleep. I was talking with my mother on the way home about educational technology. She works in that field, being one of the training consultants to the State of Maine Department of Education for such things as portable computers (with which the state is now graciously providing every student in grades... what... 8-12, I think), SMART boards, and whatnot. And it got me thinking about what "interactive" classroom technology was when I was in grade school, nigh-on thirty years ago.

Some of you may be too young to remember this technology, but, when I was in grade school the usual method of providing information to a whole classroom's worth of kids at a time, assuming you didn't just run off 30 copies of whatever it was on the mimeograph1 in the principal's office, was with a device called a filmstrip.

This is just about what it sounds like: a strip of 35mm film, developed positive, which was displayed one frame at a time through a primitive projector. Think of it as a sort of deeply analog PowerPoint. The presentation technique was a lot like a slide show, but without all the fuss and clatter of a slide projector - actually a pretty elegant solution. In my schools, the filmstrips came in little plastic cans with pop tops, and the poshest series of them came in big cardboard boxes with little sockets for each can.

The audio for these things was included on a separate cassette tape, which the teacher would play through one of those brick-shaped Radio Shack decks lying on the AV cart next to the projector. The narrator would describe a frame, then there'd be a beep and a short pause while the person operating the projector would obey the Pavlovian imperative to advance one frame, and so on. Normally, this person would be one of the students, cranking the filmstrip projector being beneath the teacher's dignity.

There was a kind of tribal politics to being picked for this job. It helped if you were good at it, but if you were an unknown quality you might get a shot if you polished enough apple. Even if you managed that, though, if you were just hopeless at the job - missed the beeps, advanced so that the frame didn't line up, skipped a frame entirely, or God forbid did what Eric Cogswell did and stripped the sprocket holes, ruining what we were assured was a very expensive and hard-to-replace piece of our school district's educational equipment, you'd have a very hard time getting picked at all. Some of the kids were too cool to show that they wanted to do it; some were so eager it was clear they didn't want to and were hoping to just get it over with. This was the state of the educational art in rural Maine in the late 1970s and early 1980s.

I was a kinghell filmstrip advancer. The best in the business. I had a touch like a surgeon with that knob; I could even get the beat-up, ancient machine in Mrs. Mackin's room to work right, and that thing was so balky it once jammed on Chip Gould to the extent that the filmstrip caught fire2. I was so finely attuned to that one-kilohertz tone that I could hear it getting ready to sound, but I never jumped the gun. Way too cool for that. Teachers would deliberately pick other kids sometimes just to give them a chance, but they always came back to me, because they knew that if you wanted a filmstrip presented smoother than glass, no matter what the subject matter, you called on the Hutchins. Ka-chow.

(I never had the faintest idea what any of those filmstrips were trying to teach us, because I was so focused on getting the presentation technology to work perfectly that I had no mental bandwidth left at all for the content, but I now consider that advance training for my later work in the Internet service industry.)

And then, as so often happens to truly skilled artisans who practice an obscure and delicate craft, automation put me out of business. When I was in the fifth grade, Mr. Warren's classroom received a brand new filmstrip projector. It had the tape deck integrated right into the machine... and it had automatic advance. It could hear the beep on the tape and click forward by itself. The newest filmstrips in that classroom actually had silent beeps, some kind of ultrasonic signal embedded in the audio stream on the cassette that would signal the thing to advance without being audible to the students.

Try to understand the shockwave that this sent through Katahdin Avenue School in the fall of 1983. You would have thought that Mr. Warren's room had just been fitted with its own Hubble Space Telescope. Principal Sanders gathered us all around and sternly informed us that this new and sophisticated machine was very expensive, which was why it was the only one in the school district, and we were not to touch it under any circumstances. This was nothing short of a slap in the face to those of us who were accustomed to our unofficial laurels as filmstrip technicians. Had I known about the Industrial Revolution at the time, I think I would have jammed a wooden shoe into the projector in protest3. Alas, I did not, so I could merely sulk and hate it. We didn't even use the old one in my fifth-grade classroom, Mrs. Page's, any more; instead, we'd swap into Mr. Warren's room while they were out at Phys. Ed. and watch our filmstrips there, like kids bagging their parents' bigscreen TV for the Xstation while they're away at Vail.

And I look at all this stuff my mother's been hired to teach teachers how to use today, so that their students' academic careers can go by in a Wikipedia-fueled blur of scenes from that hokey holographic computer room on CSI: Miami...

... and I think, Those kids will never have the satisfaction of knowing that they have made themselves absolute masters of the filmstrip projector.

On the other hand, I imagine you can get better porn on a MacBook.

1 My first and only deliberate experimentation with recreational chemistry involved Dave Evans and me daring each other to take huge huffs of the fumes coming off our wet-from-the-mimeo test papers one day. We got a five-second high, a mild headache, and banishment to Mr. Sanders's office.

2 This was an additional wrinkle to the job of filmstrip operator: The projector bulb was incredibly hot, which actually made the job a bit dangerous. If you were extremely uncareful you could get yourself a nasty burn. And touching the bulb would make it blow out, of course, which would be costly. Never happened to me, but I saw it a couple of times. I can only imagine how sued a school department would get if that happened to a student today.

3 Hence the term sabotage.
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cmdr_zoom From: cmdr_zoom Date: October 28th, 2009 08:53 pm (UTC) (Link)
As someone of similar vintage (though I don't think I ever got to handle one of the holy machina), I salute and applaud you for this wonderful reminiscence.
mindways From: mindways Date: October 28th, 2009 09:37 pm (UTC) (Link)
Seconded. Hear, hear!

(This month has been heavy on elementary school nostalgia, such as it is. A week or two ago at work, we had a long conversation about mimeograph machines. Purple text, and that distinctive smell...)
ash_3 From: ash_3 Date: October 29th, 2009 02:58 am (UTC) (Link)
Ah yes, the smell of freshly-produced pop quiz. Almost makes me want to hunt down a mimeo machine. (okay, not really)
(Deleted comment)
z_gryphon From: z_gryphon Date: October 29th, 2009 03:33 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I meant one kilohertz. It was the same sound as the standard North America censor tone. ("Zero dB SPL," etc.)
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