Baruch alumnus Michael J. Freeman (MBA ’70, CUNY PhD ’77) has many claims to fame. An inventor, entrepreneur, educator (he was assistant professor of computer information systems at Baruch from 1968 to 1978), and author, Freeman holds 42 patents, including those for such groundbreaking technologies as touch-tone telephony (i.e., voicemail) and interactive TV. But his most fondly remembered invention—at least, among an entire generation of kids—may be the popular, twice-released educational toy robot 2-XL.
The interactive 2-XL (pronounced: “to excel”), released in 1978 and marketed through the early eighties by Mego Corporation and upgraded and re-introduced in the nineties by Tiger Electronics, sold in the millions worldwide and is widely regarded as the first smart toy, a harbinger of learning tools and technologies in the digital age. Plaything Magazine—a ‘bible’ in the toy industry—recognized 2-XL’s importance immediately and featured it on the cover as one of the top 10 most significant toys ever.
[pullquote sid=”pullquote-1446589422″ align=”right”]Underlying all this creativity was Freeman’s belief—vision, really—that technology would lead learning in the future.[/pullquote]Freeman showed his genius early on. At 13 he won first prize in the Westinghouse Science Talent Search with 3-foot-high mechanical robot Rudy, who demonstrated rudimentary computer memory. A dozen years later, his 6-foot-high robot Leachim showed that computers could replicate speech. Next came 2-XL, which Freeman invented and patented in 1975, a small toy robot that simulated, with a smart-alecky twist, teacher-student interactivity. Equally successful and award-winning toys Electronic Talk ‘n Play and Kasey the Kinderbot followed. Underlying all this creativity was Freeman’s belief—vision, really—that technology would lead learning in the future.
But just in case this all sounds like fun and games, Freeman cautions, “Being an inventor is not easy; even the simplest—and best—ideas often cannot get traction. Success is much less about the idea than about getting traction for the idea.” 2-XL and his host of other successful, marketable creations show Freeman also has a genius for the business of invention.
BONUS: Especially for his fellow alumni, Freeman shared this photo:
It was a pleasure to read this article about Michael Freeman, my former professor at Baruch. Incredibly, I remember the day he told the class about Leachim, the robot he had invented only a year or two earlier. He said “Leachim” was Michael spelled backwards (well, almost). The class was mystified by his description of the invention, not able to fully comprehend its capability. We teased him that we didn’t believe he was that smart, and he laughed along with us.
Thinking about our indifference to technology back then and our dependence on it today, I am awestruck at Professor Freeman’s vision and accomplishments. But remembering him as a warm and relatable teacher, only a few years older than his students at Baruch, I am not surprised to learn of his passion to create technology to help children learn. Robots do not judge, criticize, or lose patience.
This article is a wonderful tribute to him, and I hope he writes an autobiography one day, so I can read more about his fascinating life.
—Gail (Newberg) Kaufman ’77
Visit Ms. Kaufman’s blog for an expanded tribute to Professor Freeman, “A College Professor Ahead of His Time.”