Grey Room

The Science of Fun and the War on Poverty

William Lockett


In 1960, Venn Moore, just two and one-half years of age, sat at an electric typewriter with an adult attendant by her side as part of an experiment. The young typist pressed whichever key she liked, if any. A mechanism in the typewriter’s keyboard locked its levers until the attendant nearby had spoken aloud the name of the key pressed by the child. The adult then disengaged the locking mechanism so the student could renew her exploration of the keyboard, key by key. Venn could have typed a page of asterisks, and the attendant would have verbally responded to each key stroke. This experiment, the invention of the sociologist Omar Khayyam Moore (who was also Venn Moore’s father), was described to the readers of the Chicago Tribune in 1963 as part of a War on Poverty program titled Project Breakthrough. The idea that children would learn to read by first writing out pages of nonsense characters was also noted on the pages of the Saturday Evening Post. Writing for the magazine in 1965, C.P. Gilmore observed, “One child gleefully struck the asterisks 75 times without the machine or attendant uttering a word.” Unchanneled glee was not productive. But when guided by the attendant operating the locking mechanism to make time for her vocalization of a symbolic value, each mechanically guided keystroke “allowed [the child typists] to make their own discoveries” of the connection between sign and sound—regardless of the propositional content found on a page of asterisks or in the vocalization thereof.