Herbert’s Homework

by Jeff Langr

May 18, 2004

Yard sales can be a treasure trove for used books. If you like carbon-copy suspense or trashy romance novels, you’ll find plenty for sale at fifty cents or even a quarter apiece. Occasionally I’ll come across some good literature (this weekend: The Fountainhead) or computer books.

This past weekend a beat-up hardback, Herbert’s Homework by Hazel Wilson, caught my eye. I had read the book while in early grade school and remembered it well. In fact, I had only remembered the story but not the title, character’s name, or author. Upon spotting the book, I immediately recognized all three.

(It’s interesting how your mind stores things that you later have a tough time retrieving. And then something presents you with a reminder that jogs the details out of your memory. The experience reminds me of saving a document from Microsoft Word, or Excel, or whatever, and then trying to remember where you saved it a few weeks later.)

Herbert’s Homework was interesting to me because I remember that the author had been a bit prescient. The basic plot was that Herbert was a lazy 7th grade punk who did whatever he could to get out of homework. His uncle sent him a gift to help out. He call it a “portable electronic brain.” The brain looked a lot like a clunky television set.

The brain provided answers to encyclopedic questions, such as the average rainfall in South America. It was able to do math quite well. What it failed at were things for which it didn’t have enough information, such as how Herbert had enjoyed his summer vacation. When presented with this sort of challenge, the brain sat there with a blank screen.

Oddly, the author gave the brain the ability to juggle (poorly) balls above a steel rod. Otherwise, the portable electronic brain was the equivalent of a modern PC. Seemingly smart, but truly stupid until someone properly programmed it.

The book was written in 1960. Unfortunately the author presented few additional details or insights into the portable brain, which breaks down when Herbert tasks it a bit too hard. Worse, the manufacturer goes out of business, so Herbert can’t get it fixed.

I’m curious as to what other visions for the personal computing future looked like at this time. I thought it was insightful for the author to implicitly express the limitations of computing.


Aneil Mishra March 7, 2006 at 03:53pm

I loved all the Herbert books as a kid, and now have repurchased them online so that my son, too can enjoy his antics and adventures.

Anonymous Anonymous December 2, 2007 at 05:00pm

I used to enjoy the Herbert books too. Fond memories.

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Jeff Langr

About the Author

Jeff Langr has been building software for 40 years and writing about it heavily for 20. You can find out more about Jeff, learn from the many helpful articles and books he's written, or read one of his 1000+ combined blog (including Agile in a Flash) and public posts.