Updated: Aug 29, 2020
The following is written by: Ken Gage.
Some people might call him by his patent name US4078316A and then go on to describe him casually as “a real time conversational verbal interactive toy apparatus capable of providing a conversational type playback response to an interrogatory message from a removably insertable magnetic storage medium which comprises a plurality of coextensive multipurpose audio tracks contained in a housing, includes parallel connected switch banks for directly selecting one of the tracks for reproducing the selected information stored thereon, such as a particular category, which may vary, of multiple choice response to the interrogatory message with the particular category of response being contained in the interrogatory message.” For me, he was all that I wanted in the magical year of 1979.
I first saw him in a toy catalog (likely from Sears or J.C. Penney). I remember telling my parents that the 2-XL robot toy was all I wanted for Christmas. “He talks and you can play games with him!” I explained. My mom looked at the catalog page and noticed the hefty price tag: over fifty bucks!
“We’ll see,” mom said, doubtfully. “It’s a lot of money.”
In 1979, I was riding a wave of robophilia, like most of the U.S.A. Of course, Star Wars was still echoing largely in pop culture. TV was saturated with shows featuring robots: Buck Rogers in the 25th Century, Battlestar Galactica, The Six Million Dollar Man, Jason of Star Command, Space Academy — and let’s not even get into Saturday morning cartoon robots or regularly syndicated runs of Lost In Space and Star Trek. In 1979 I had also discovered Doctor Who, thanks to WTTW Channel 11 in Chicago, so Daleks, Cybermen and various androids were also on my mind. I should mention, too, that I grew up watching a lot of Japanese import TV shows that aired in the mid-1970s, like The Space Giants, Ultraman and Johnny Sokko and His Flying Robot.
And already I had a Great Mazinga, the robot toy from Mattel’s Shogun Warriors line. It shot rockets out of its fingers with a spring mechanism. But Great Mazinga couldn’t talk.
I’m not sure how they did it — we were economically disenfranchised — but my mom and dad came through with that 2-XL toy for Christmas. And I even got a few 8-track tapes besides the “General Information“ cartridge that came with 2-XL. (But not the Tri-Lex game, unfortunately.) Maybe because all I talked about was that 2-XL toy robot, they felt extra-obligated. I’m not sure. I was spectacularly surprised. And I spent an enormous — maybe even an unhealthy — amount of time with my new robot pal. The winter of 1979 in the Chicago area was unusually cold and snowy, so I’m sure that contributed to my indoor activities. (1979 was also the year we got an Atari 2600!)
I played those 8-tracks so much, I had every pun and dumb joke memorized. (Decades later, I would recycle 2-XL’s catchphrase, “Thank you for turning me on!”, into the opening sequence of my Radiolux music show Shock Waves and Shrunken Heads.)
Michael J. Freeman (born 1947 and still kicking), who created 2-XL, has a lot of patents and accomplishments behind his name. You Can Call Him Brainy, the slogan from the box 2-XL came in, might just as well apply to Michael. His most important achievement, to me though, is that he is the voice talent behind all 43 of those original 2-XL tapes, an effect he achieved by pitching up his voice and altering it slightly through a synthesizer. The so-called “Toy With Personality” owes that personality to its creator.
Even more 2-XL tapes were produced with Michael’s voice acting starting in 1992, when Tiger Electronics launched a redesign of our little robot friend … but that would be a story best left to someone else’s nostalgia. Michael would go on to produce a 2-XL game show called Pick Your Brain, in which he decided against supplying that instantly recognizable 2-XL voice of his. He also launched another successful toy robot, Kasey the Kinderbot. And, oddly enough, is the owner of the world’s most expensive dollhouse, Astolat Dollhouse Castle.
Scholastic Magazine declared the 2-XL robot as having a cultural impact on par with such toys as the Teddy Bear, Barbie Doll and Mickey Mouse. Prescient words for 1978! And, more recently, Silicon Republic ranked 2-XL as number 47 on its list of the 50 Greatest Robots in Pop Culture History.
For my part, I’m working on a 2-XL song with the freak loop electronica band Church of the 9 Candles (C9C). Its working title is “2-XL Robot Army” and we hope to have it available on our Worlds For Sale album by 2020 for BrainBlister Records. (You heard it here first!)
Now, go experience playing with a virtual 2-XL robot for yourself, by selecting a cartridge at the following site: https://2xlbot.com/