Title: Carol and Merlin

Date Occurred: September 29 through October 3, 2007

Date Written: October 4, 2007

Written By: Joel T. Kant

Copyright (c) 2007 by Joel T. Kant


I stopped at a garage sale on Saturday, September 29. For a mere quarter, I bought a red Merlin handheld electronic game. This is a handheld game first made in 1978. It had a 3x3 array of red LED's, then one more LED above and one more LED below, to make a total of eleven. LED stands for light-emitting-diodes, so these merely look like tiny red light bulbs. These are numbered zero through ten. There is a transparent covered switch that can be pushed by a finger over the top of each of the eleven LED's.

My younger brother James had a Merlin back in 1978 when it was the hot new toy for the Christmas season. Although I have no idea whatever happened to the one he owned, if it could have worn out, then I think his Merlin might have expired through sheer overuse.

This is the pattern of numbers on Merlin:


1 2 3

4 5 6

7 8 9


This is like a touchtone telephone, but a telephone has a 0 where this 10 is and has no button above the 2. There are four more pushbuttons on the bottom, but these have no LED's behind them. These are labeled: New Game, Same Game, Hit Me, and Comp Turn. Comp stands for "computer," so Comp Turn means Computer Turn.

The eleven LED's can be off, blink, or stay on steadily. With this simple system of switches, LED's, and tones through a speaker, the Merlin plays games like Tic-Tac-Toe, memory match a series of tones, Blackjack, and guess the random number.

I played a game of Blackjack and won. I explained to Holly and Carol that the warbling tone Merlin was making indicated that I had won.

Holly asked skeptically, "That's it? That's all it does when you win?"

I must admit that this does not have the flair of the depiction of the slowing falling deck of cards going down one at a time that Microsoft put into Solitaire for Windows!

Carol Holding the Merlin Handheld Electronic Toy

Figure One: Carol Holding the Merlin Handheld Electronic Toy

[Photograph by Joel Kant]

To Holly's surprise, Carol likes using Merlin. (See Fig. 1) I had suspected Carol might be like my brother James had been in terms of interest in it, so I was not surprised.

The capabilities of Merlin are extremely limited, as one would expect from an electronic toy from 1978, which is practically pre-historic in terms of digital electronics.

Last night (Wednesday, October 3), Carol typed in songs from the single page manual, which is barely a pamphlet. These are simple songs like Jingle Bells and Mary Had a Little Lamb. The songs sound dreadful! Merlin's maximum capacity is a mere 48 notes! That is not very long. Only one note plays at a time, and it is just a pure tone. There is no way to change the length of a note. There are only nine notes possible, plus a silent rest. It is hard to know if one entered the rest properly or not since it is silent when the button is pushed.

Here is an example of entering a song. The 0's are rests. This is Mary Had a Little Lamb: 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 0, 3, 3, 3, 0, 4, 6, 6, 0, 4, 3, 2, 3, 4, 4, 4, 4, 3, 3, 4, 3, 2.

Carol determinedly punched in the entire list of numbers and usually got them right. Carol was delighted when she pushed COMP TURN, and her hard work was rewarded by the song playing.

Carol liked doing this better than the World of Music's Music Magic program I use on the personal computer (it is a DOS with Windows 3.1 program, but still works with Windows XP). I have shown Carol that many times. That makes MIDI files. It requires putting notes of different lengths (whole, half, quarter, eighth, and sixteenth) on a staff using a mouse. It is a far harder to do that and takes much manual dexterity. Carol tried putting in a few notes in the computer program a couple months ago, then refused to put notes in it any more. Using Merlin by comparison is easy, and Carol liked putting notes into Merlin.

The crudeness and horrible sound of the Merlin got a little on Holly's nerves last night, but I was impressed that Carol got some songs in correctly with very little help from me. Carol was just typing in the numbers from the pamphlet.

After putting in two or three songs with my help, Carol then put in songs last night while refusing to let me help. Once put in, Carol would then play the song and have me try to guess it.

One of the songs Carol put in was Shenandoah. After I correctly named the song, Carol wanted to know the lyrics. Shenandoah has a catchy tune, but the lyrics that I know go like this: "Missouri, she's a mighty river. Away you rolling river. The redskins camp lies on its borders. Ah-ha, I'm bound away across the wide Missouri. The white man loved the Indian maiden, With notions his canoe was laden."

Another white man in the song then gives the Indian chief "firewater" and with that successfully steals away the chief's daughter. (Source: Library of Congress web site of http://memory.loc.gov, Ships, sea songs and shanties by William. B. Whall (Glasgow: J. Brown and Son, 1912))

I told Carol the lyrics up through the word "river," then gave no more. Certainly the term "redskins" is considered offensive today, and I certainly did not want to try to explain firewater and abduction! Maybe I should have just pretended it was a song of notes without lyrics, since Carol knows some music has lyrics and other music does not.

The Merlin manual gives no lyrics for any of the songs, just a song title and list of numbers to type in. Not even Mary Had a Little Lamb gets lyrics in the pamphlet that makes up the manual.

Carol also liked playing Tic-Tac-Toe on Merlin after I explained the rules. In addition, Carol and I also played the memory game with about four notes to remember. Carol liked that, but seemed to prefer Tic-Tac-Toe.

At only five-years-old, Carol already has learned of other electronic toys from her school friends in kindergarten or elsewhere because she held up the Merlin and asked, "Daddy, isn't this a lot bigger than a Gameboy?"

It certainly is bigger! Although it is still handheld, the Merlin is about the size of an old style telephone receiver. That is, about ten inches by about four inches by four inches. If Carol ever tries a Gameboy, then I expect her interest in Merlin to vanish in an instant. I am not sure what the video resolution of a Gameboy is, but the Merlin's display is a mere eleven red (and only red) LED's!

Despite the simplicity of Merlin, last night Carol was so interested in playing Merlin that I had to shut it off on her and put it away to get her to bed.


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