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Coded for Cuteness: How the Furby Conquered Hearts and Minds

Real programming chops lay behind the Furby’s cuddly, creepy facade

5 min read
Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum
My Friend Furby: Hasbro’s must-have toy of 1998 was the Furby. The specimen shown here now resides in the permanent collection of the Computer History Museum, in Mountain View, Calif.
Photo: Mark Richards/Computer History Museum

When I learned that the Computer History Museum in Mountain View, Calif., had added a Furby to its permanent collection, my first thought was, Why?

I am not of the Furby Generation and never quite understood the animatronic furball's appeal. When it first hit stores in the fall of 1998 as the must-have toy of the holiday season, I was just out of college and living in Europe. I wasn't drawn to the creepy/cute cross between an owl and a gremlin, nor did I know any kids who were clamoring for it. Curiosity did not compel me to perform a hacker's autopsy of the toy, nor did I have the creative chops to adapt them into weirdly compelling installations, as the artist Kelly Heaton did in the early 2000s. Eventually, Hasbro sold more than 40 million Furbys, none of them to me.

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polaroid sx-70 camera, silver with brown leather, open on white surface
Thomas Backa

In one corner stood the defending champion, Texas Instruments. In the other stood the challenger, Fairchild Semiconductor. The referee, judge, promoter, and only spectator was Polaroid. In contention was the contract for the electronics of Polaroid’s secret project—a pioneering product introduced in 1972 as the SX-70, a camera eventually purchased by millions of people.

As the embodiment of truly automated instant photography, the SX-70 fulfilled a long-held dream of Edwin Land, founder of Polaroid Corp., Cambridge, Mass. Vital to this “point and shoot” capability was a new film—one that would develop while exposed to light and so eliminate the tear-away covers of previous Polaroid films. Also vital were sophisticated electronics to control all single lens reflex (SLR) camera functions, including flashbulb selection, exposure control, mirror positioning, start of print development, and ejection of print. These circuits were divided into three modules, one each for motor, exposure and logic, and flash control. At the final count, some 400 transistors were used.

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