The Hindsight Letterbug was conceived in 1986. MultiMate International (the makers of the then best-selling word processor MultiMate) had entered into a sale agreement with Ashton-Tate (the makers of the best selling database, dBase). The sale of MultiMate (the product) and MultiMate (the company) for $21 million was going to leave a number of people in the company with more than a little pocket change. Wil Jones, MultiMate’s president and founder, was planning to buy himself a little boat (93 foot??) and sail around for a while.
Aboard the Pegasus, Wil wanted some sort of software to help his kids learn and practice handwriting. He had an Apple ][ gs and was hoping to find *something* that would make the kids’ time with the computer something better than babysitting. This was long before anyone dreamed that we’d soon have satellites to let people use the internet from the middle of the ocean.
Michael Wiggins was one of Wil’s partners at W. H. Jones & Associates when MultiMate
was written and the first employee of the new company. He ran the software development
effort for a while and eventually ended up on the front lines of new product conception
and development. Through a complicated sequence of events, Howard Eglowstein, a MIT
When MultiMate sold and Wil cashed his check, he asked Mike if he knew of any products (hopefully for the Apple) that would help his kids. We talked about what was out there and it became clear that the problem was a dearth of hardware as much as software. Howard had worked with touch screens since 1979; the concept for the Letterbug appeared quickly on the back of a napkin or one of Mike’s legal pads (we’re not sure which).
It seems primitive and obvious now in 2014, but the Letterbug was a touch screen tablet computer. It had a (then) high resolution plasma display screen, resistive touch screen, 8086 processor, 512K of RAM and 256K of ROM. Besides looking cool it talked - it had a Votrax SC-01 (found in pinball machines at the time) and speech input that would later be used for recording speech and then using it as part of lessons.
Ignoring the obvious - that this was the first tablet computer shown publicly (at a teaching technology show in 1987 - a fact later confirmed by IP attorneys at Wilmerhale prior to a trial in 2011), the Letterbug did a couple of things that had never been done prior or since.
The first Letterbug prototype drew from an old-fashioned school slate. We had originally thought it should resemble a workbook, but the technology simply wasn’t available to make anything truly as thin as a school workbook. We then thought about using the image of an old timey school slate. True, kids in the 1980s have never seen anything like a real school slate, but the concept made some of the more experienced schoolteachers on the team smile - so a slate it was. The frame was made of ash and the bezel was an actual blackboard surface. It seemed like fun to let kids customize their Letterbug with chalk. To accomodate the bulky hardware in the first prototype the case was taller than we liked. We raised the back end and slanted the case to help make it better ergonomically.
By the time we built prototype 2, we had slimmed down the hardware substantially and things all fit in a case 1 inch thick. The ash frame turned into a sleek ivory-colored plastic case and the chalkboard surface turned into black plastic. The case design was done by Bob Gault of Gault Designs, a noted designer of television and radio cabinetry in the 1970s and 80s. Since it was much harder to make sample cases back then (no 3D printing!!) this second prototype is made of cabinet-grade birch plywood.
With a functional prototype it was time to get support to finish developing the content. The team by then included several Special Ed. experts and handwriting teachers (remember when schools taught handwriting?) who all contributed content ideas. The software for the tablet was written in 8086 assembly language for the Letterbug’s custom API. This API would later find new life as part of Penmanship’s KidPad in the mid 1990s. What would eventually be named PIGS (Personal Interactive Graphics System) made it pretty easy to write some fun and educational things for the Letterbug. The demos included connect-the-dots to help with hand/eye coordination, tracing letters on ‘lined paper’ with the stylus while the system offered feedback in real time, or games which emphasized letter shapes. The first of these was a racetrack shaped like the letter ‘S’. The kids used the stylus to move a car from one end of the track to another without hitting any of the hay bales along the sides. It wasn’t about speed, but accuracy; the goal was to get from one end to the other on the ideal path without straying out of the track. The Votrax helped out by making motor noises and simulating special effects as only an early-80s phoneme synthesizer could do. A description wouldn’t do it justice, but imagine making motor noises by saying "rmm, rmm" and wiggling your finger up and down on your lips.
A presentation to the MIT Enterprise forum in December of 1987 was promising but made it clear there was work to do. The audience and panel feedback consistently said the device was impressive but (a) the apps had to be done before we could sell any and (b) we were about 10 years ahead of our time. The Hartford Courant did an article on the evening’s presentations.
In late 1988 or early 1989 it became clear that our desire to get these in the classroom was not going to be enough. Special Ed. administrators in CT were reluctant to let us set up a system in a school so we decided to relegate the Letterbug to the history books. The prototypes ended up in Mike’s spare room closet, the trade show materials ended up in Howard’s house in NH and the idea of a display tablet computer disappeared for a short while. Who actually came out with one first is still being contested. It is widely believed that The Samsung-made GRiDPad was the first commercially *sold* tablet in 1989, two years after the Letterbug appeared at shows. The Letterbug was always photographed from all angles and by companies including IBM and Apple. It is not known whether it ever directly influenced any later designs.