Honeywell's Kitchen Computer: the 1969 behemoth that didn't sell a single unit

Wired's Daniela Hernandez has an in-depth history of the Honeywell Kitchen Computer, a minicomputer that could track recipes and offer meal plans, which was listed in the 1969 Neiman-Marcus Christmas catalog, though none ever sold. Not only were the technical challenges associated with installing one of these were formidable, they were also pitched for solving a problem that wasn't really much of a problem.

I always imagined the design meeting for this going something like:

"I bet rich people would love to have the bragging rights you'd get from having a computer in their house, it'd be like having your own personal Apollo mission."

"Yeah, but what would they use 'em for? Let's ask Poindexter if he's got any ideas."

"Mrr, yes gentlemen, well, you see, computers are very good at tabulating long columns of numbers, solving differential equations, and managing 'data-bases', these being complex records, such as those used for human resources departments to keep track of the various attributes of employees and such..."



"So, uh, these data-bases, is that something you know, normal people might use? Something you'd keep around the house?"

"Oh yes! Your Christmas card list on 3x5 cards, or a list of recipes --"

"Recipes, you say?"

And off they went. Of course, in trying to improve things that worked well already (and without any input from the people whose problems they were notionally solving), Honeywell fell into the pit of "insufficient weirdness" -- imagining a future that was much like the present, only moreso. Computers that organized recipes, not computers that let you take pictures of your lunch and instantaneously share them with friends around the world.

Without a teletype, a programmer would need to enter software into the Honeywell using the 16 buttons on the front panel, each of which corresponds to a bit. A pressed button represented a one, and un-pushed button signaled a zero. “The chances that you would get a program right doing it one bit at a time like that were so low,” Spicer said. “The first peripheral people bought for [the Honeywell] was a teletype so they could speak to it.”

Now try to imagine all that in late 1960s kitchen. A full H316 system wouldn’t have fit in most kitchens, says design historian Paul Atkinson of Britain’s Sheffield Halam University. Plus, it would have looked entirely out of place. The thought that an average person, like a housewife, could have used it to streamline chores like cooking or bookkeeping was ridiculous, even if she aced the two-week programming course included in the $10,600 price tag.

If the lady of the house wanted to build her family’s dinner around broccoli, she’d have to code in the green veggie as 0001101000. The kitchen computer would then suggest foods to pair with broccoli from its database by “speaking” its recommendations as a series of flashing lights. Think of a primitive version of KITT, without the sexy voice.

Before the iPad, There Was the Honeywell Kitchen Computer


    1. 10,000 and you still need a wife.

      (actually, it occurs to me that even a machine can’t compete with free human labor very well)

      1. Not even free but cheep human labor still wins out. Sure, we could design and build servant robots but they’d cost a couple hundred grand a piece. Meanwhile, for a tenth of that cost, you can pay a human housekeeper.

        Even economy of scale doesn’t work in this instance, because it’s still cheaper to press gang a village in Micronesia than it is to automate a factory floor in Lansing. All our utopian technocratic dreams fail when confronted with the naked efficiency of capitalism.

  1. Of course these N-M catalog offerings were meant to generate publicity back in the day for N-M.  They had little or no expectation of selling any, though on occasion one would sell, sort of like the filthy rich version of buying an item featured on Regretsy.

    1. Thank you SO MUCH for the Regretsy reference.     Had never heard of it so zipped on over;  especially loved the “” site.    

      I haven’t laughed so hard in quite awhile.

  2. And a decade later after this, in the early 1980s, the two most common advertising claims for selling home computers were that you could use them to balance your checkbook and to keep track of recipes. I don’t know anyone who actually did either with their computer.

    1. That reminded me of some TV commercials for Amiga Computers back in the 90s.  Their main message was that you could do things at home that you had never dreamed of before; composing and playing music, creating videos, and ultimately launching your whole house into space…

  3. It would have made a great kitchen island though… if it was flatter and had less friable electronics. Because that thing would have been almost immediately covered in measuring cups, mixing bowls and ingredients.

  4. I like how even in the picture the lady is looking at the thing going “What the hell am I supposed to do with this?  I had better not touch any of the buttons.”

  5. For us, it has turned full circle. Using computers to collate all your recipes was one of the persistent but seemingly dumb ideas used to promote early home PCs, but we now cook almost exclusively from computer-accessed recipes. They’re not ours, but come from the myriad of recipe websites out there. The promise has been fulfilled. Now where are those flying cars?

  6. The article reckons it did sell a few units (“People did actually buy this machine, but not very many people.”) but just not via the department store. Although it says the one in the museum is the only one in existence. Hmm.

  7. At least they were willing to take the leap that a housewife could learn to program a computer.  Given the time, that sounds like a pretty big concession.

    1. Most early computer programmers were housewives in their spare time, if they could be bothered to take the spare time to go get married.

  8. Now that I’ve read a description of that computer, I can finally see how it fits into the package. It’s a 5 inch tall rack-mount computer, similar to a NOVA, with a weird curvy skin wrapped around it to appeal to the late sixties mod fashion. It’s a rather confusing package, because it looks just like a NOVA printing terminal, yet it doesn’t do that.

    They could have packaged it like the Tektronix 4010, with a printing terminal (a la Teletype) in the top and the electronics in the pedestal. Then it may have had a hope of being useful, although it would have weighed close to 200 lbs.

  9. Wow, typing in octal codes on the front panel – that sure takes me back!  When I was in University I’d occasionally run across something such as a NOVA or PDP-11 that you’d have to toggle in the boot addresses on.  I once met the last surviving General Electric Mainframe (8K in main memory!  20-bit words! Birthplace of BASIC!) genius who could play the much longer sequences needed there on the front panel like a church organist.

    Of course, when the Honeywell thing came out it was after a decades long cycle of miniaturisation.  By comparison, look at the IBM SSEC, which wasn’t even a computer, just a scientific calculator, but took up an auditorium 1949.  Coolest control panel ever though:

    1.  Yeah, I miss all those blinking lights and switches…not to mention the warm fuzzy feeling I got from a full deck of Hollerith cards.

  10. One of the things I have appreciated about the internet is how I’ve been able to fill in at least some of the gaps my grandparents didn’t get around to teaching me about home economics.  I know more than many of my generation (Boomer), which puts me lightyears ahead of the following generations, but it still amazes me how much more knowledge was wired into the brains of people born in the late 1800’s to the early 1900’s.  Computers STILL haven’t caught up to the sophistication of their wisdom, but enough people are sharing what they’ve learned that at least there’s the sense that it won’t all be lost.

    So, when I see something like this, what I see is a bunch of guys in a conference room having not the slightest clue how much more complicated cooking for a family is in comparison to the very limited functionality of a computer at the time.

  11. The Computer History Museum in Mountain View, CA has one on display. I believe the only one known to exist.

  12. It doesn’t look like it could possibly fit in that tiny kitchen (although it’s not actually that small by the standards of the time), but I could see someone fitting an original-style Macintosh with Hypercard in there. (Actor/comedian/magician Harry Anderson, an early Mac adopter, once compared its design to an average Krups appliance.) 

  13. Well of course you’re not going to be able to sell that monstrosity to any ladies. They should have asked Samsung or Sony. You need to make it pink.

  14.  What I noticed is the two baskets full of actual food- green onions- lettuce- peppers- and a bunch more. No prepared food.

  15. Maybe because I’m buzzed but the whole contraption looks like a giant cybernetic ducks’ head on a pedestal.

    And the woman is patting it on it’s widdle head…

    While I imagine it would be more useful should it swivel and shoot lasers from his pointy bill; if it had self-awareness then…but that apron!

    So…Prominent.  So…Detailed.  man, i am high…

  16. The idea was right, the technology was not there. In 1968 Honeywell was selling the H800 which still had tube circuits in it and the size of a small house.

    This is also the company that invented the internet hubs, (mini 316) and bought the Multics computers from GE and invented the first relational Database in the ’70s..

    Now Honeywell is gone, bought by Allied-Signal who kept the name because their reputation was so bad.

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