Earlier this month, Lou Ottens, the Dutch inventor of the cassette tape passed away at the age of 94. Ottens was an engineer at Philips, which reports that more than 100 billion cassette tapes have been sold worldwide.
Some of those audio cassettes made their way into a quirky educational toy for children, the 2-XL Talking Robot.
Mego, 2-XL, and 8-Tracks
New York City-based Mego Corporation initially released an eight-track model of 2-XL (short for “to excel”) in 1978. The toy offered a myriad of educational programming on a variety of different topics recorded on 8-track tapes.
Children interacted with the 2-XL by listening to questions and providing answers. Pressing buttons caused the toy to switch between pre-recorded tracks, thereby appearing to respond to user input.
Dr. Michael J. Freeman was the human behind the 2-XL and a prolific inventor with more than fifty patents to his name in robotics, telecommunications, and cable television. Freeman invented and patented the 2-XL in 1976 and spent the next several years shopping it around to various toy companies until Mego finally signed on roughly two years later.
One of the most distinctive features of the 2-XL was its voice. Freeman filtered his own voice through a synthesizer to create a high-pitched robotic sound. Nevertheless, the toy featured the same distinctive Brooklyn accent as its inventor.
Bring on the Cassettes!
Mego’s 2-XL enjoyed a four-year shelf-life, disappearing during the company’s bankruptcy proceedings. Eleven years later, in 1992, Tiger Electronics re-introduced 2-XL. Known as the 2-XL Type 3 to collectors, this version of the toy offered enhanced sound quality and a technology upgrade – outdated eight-track tapes were replaced with audio cassettes.
While Dr. Freeman’s voice continued to be used in Tiger’s version, the 2-XL had a whole new look, with a more pronounced body design three-inches shorter than the original. The new 2-XL’s eye still lit up like its predecessor, now complemented by a mouth light that blinked in time with the audio.
The Tiger version was also portable, featuring a carrying handle at the top of his head and able to run on 4-D batteries in addition to an optional AC adapter. An integrated headphone jack also made it possible to listen to 2-XL without disturbing others – perfect for long road trips.
Tiger Electronics’ run with the 2-XL lasted three years. During that time, the company released over 40 educational and story/adventure tapes for the toy, including tie-ins to Marvel and DC superheroes, Star Trek: The Next Generation, and Jurassic Park.
Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.