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..."

"Oh."

"Oh."

"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