by Claire Sykes
They send our emails and run our cars, but most of us haven’t a clue about how computers actually work. For those wanting to know – and/or wanting to have fun – there’s Turing Tumble.
Part puzzle, part game, Turing Tumble was named after Alan Turing, “father of the modern computer.” Ironically, it uses no electronics at all. As inventor Paul Boswell explains, it’s a mechanical computer where marbles take the place of electricity and gravity provides the power. Those marbles roll into and around little plastic parts, making the tilted game board look like a cross between a pinball machine and a Rube Goldberg contraption.
It educates as much as it entertains.
The game is manufactured by Minnesota-based Turing Tumble LLC, owned by Paul and his wife Alyssa. Right now, they couldn’t be happier – Paul’s invention is currently enjoying its status as a TOTY Award finalist in the Rookie of the Year category. Recently, he explained to edplay how he dreamed up his invention, why it’s so popular, and how retailers can make it tumble off their shelves into homes and schools.
edplay: How does Turing Tumble work?
Paul: Computers seem so magical. You hear that they contain billions and billions of tiny switches, but how do switches do anything smart? With Turing Tumble, you find out. It comes with a book of 60 increasingly difficult puzzle challenges for players that range from 8-year-olds to professional programmers.
Your job with each puzzle is to build a mechanical computer. To do that, you have to figure out which of the six different types of plastic parts to use and where to place them on the game board. Some parts act like wires and direct the marble’s flow, and some are like switches toggled back and forth by the marbles.
When you begin the tasks are simple – the computer only needs to generate patterns of marbles at the bottom of the gameboard. But as you play and progress through the challenges, Turing Tumble counts, does logic, adds and subtracts, and even performs multiplication and division. It’s extremely satisfying to solve the puzzles and it’s surprising what you can build.
I mean it truly is a computer, and it can do anything your smartphone can do. Of course, it would need to be the size of Texas.
What makes it unique?
Many games, electronic and board, attempt to teach kids how to code with varying degrees of success. But they only teach how computers behave. Turing Tumble teaches how computers work by engaging the senses and letting players actually see and feel it. It’s a completely new approach to teaching coding. There’s no language at all, so kids won’t get bogged down by proper spelling or perfectly placed semicolons. Turing Tumble builds raw programming skills without a steep learning curve.
Even if you don’t learn a thing from it, everybody likes marble runs.
How and when did Turing Tumble come into being?
I started working on it in 2015 while I was a chemistry research professor at the University of Minnesota. After a lot of prototyping, it was ready for injection molds. We launched a Kickstarter campaign hoping for $48,000, but in 30 days we raised $404,000! I started working fulltime on the project and by June 2018, we had an inventory of 15,000 Turing Tumbles manufactured by LongPack Games in Shanghai.
You’re a scientist. Had you considered yourself an entrepreneur before Turing Tumble?
Being a professor is surprisingly similar to being an entrepreneur. Both require looking for new angles on problems, researching, and developing solutions.
Raising Kickstarter funds is a lot like applying for a research grant, but more fun.
What are your and Alyssa’s roles in the company?
Alyssa is like the CEO and I focus on the technical stuff. We’re incredibly lucky to also employ four brilliant part-timers. They’re amazing.
Where is Turing Tumble sold?
First, we don’t sell to online resellers. Turing Tumble has been a great fit for specialty toy-and-game stores and museum stores. A lot of schools, elementary to college, are including it in their curricula with our free educator guide for teachers. It’s been selling everywhere so fast we’ve had trouble keeping a lot of the stores in stock.
What selling tips do you have for specialty toy retailers?
Turing Tumble makes an attractive display. Customers like to touch it and play with it on its face value alone. It’s a cool marble run, but when you tell people that it’s also a marble-powered computer, they’re hooked. We find it’s a great choice for parents looking for a gift for their kid who only likes video games.
We’re happy to keep retailers and their customers stocked with extra marbles, for free.
What do people say about Turning Tumble?
Many parents say they’ve never seen their kid that engaged with something unless it’s a video game. Retailers have told us that’s why it sells so well. Turing Tumble keeps kids’ interest for hours, and parents have fun playing it with them.
What kind of feedback do you get about its price?
It’s $69.95, and some people are surprised by that. But after they feel its weight, see the thickness of the puzzle book, and take note of the quality of the parts and packaging, they don’t question the price anymore. The game appeals to people who want a premium educational toy that’s fun and has meat. They want something that gives them a unique experience and leaves them looking at the world through new eyes.
Did business change after you became a Toy of the Year finalist?
It was such an honor to be nominated. And yes, it has increased awareness of Turing Tumble, especially among toy retailers. Business has been better than we ever dreamed.
What’s next for you and Turing Tumble?
We’re working to reach more schools. Because computers are so vital to our everyday lives, I think it’s more important than ever to teach kids how they work. Turing Tumble does that in a tangible way that kids can understand.
I suppose, eventually, we’ll have to change the name of the company because Turing Tumble won’t be our only product anymore. Got any ideas?
For more information, visit turingtumble.com.