That Time in the 1960s When Patty Duke Played a Teenage Computer Hacker

Not everyone who reads this is old enough to remember watching The Patty Duke Show during its original run on ABC or when Nick at Nite regularly ran reruns in the late 1980s/early 1990s. If you were born after 1983 and haven't seen The Patty Duke Show in syndication imagine what would result if all the people who voted for Trump decided to get together and make their own black-and-white version of the Sister, Sister series. What you are imagining roughly approximates what The Patty Duke Show was. I can't imagine why Trump voters would ever want to make such a TV series but they made Trump president so I don't underestimate their ability to make random improbable things happen.

Not everyone will agree that what was featured on the second episode of The Patty Duke Show counts as "computer hacking" so I should explain what I mean. Wikipedia gives two definitions for the word "Hacker":

  1. an adherent of the technology and programming subculture.
  2. someone who is able to subvert computer security. If doing so for malicious purposes, the person can also be called a cracker.

It is my belief what Patty Duke portrayed during the episode "The Genius" falls under the second definition. The character's motivation wasn't malicious but the actions did subvert the computer's security. Although not having strong security the computer's function was undermined by buttons being pushed that weren't meant to be activated.

Photo Source: YouTube

So what happened during this episode? An educational expert named Mr. Snell (Paul Lynde) shows up one day at Patty Lane's (Patty Duke) school. Many may remember the guest star Paul Lynde from his role as Uncle Arthur from the Bewitched series. The class is informed that all the students will have their I.Q.s tested by an electronic computer. When it's Patty's turn to be tested Mr. Snell explains how the test will be administered and instructs Patty that at no time is she to press any of the buttons on the computer itself; foreshadowing what is about to happen. The only buttons Patty is allowed to use are on a teleprinter connected to the computer. Mr. Snell has to leave the room in order to take a call and leaves Patty to continue on with the test. As the computer continues to fire out questions and Patty becomes more and more frustrated in how little time there is to answer each question she begins to tinker with the computer controls to get more time. To Patty's satisfaction the machine begins to answer its own questions. This results in a scored I.Q. of 185 which is attributed to Patty. For comparison Stephen Hawkings I.Q. is around 160.

The website identifies the computer featured in the episode as a Univac 422 and lauds its realistic use in the episode at three out of five stars.

In "Chaos and Control" by Steve Anderson he writes about this episode:

The Paul Lynde character, in turn, is stereotypically overinvested in the accuracy of the computer in defiance of logic and the opinions of those who know her. To characterize an early 1960s white-bread conformist comedy such as The Patty Duke Show as "socially normative" is admittedly almost a redundancy. What makes this episode worthy of note is its aggressive denunciation of the potential of an "average" girl such as Patty to excel at anything–including computers–at the precise moment when the computer industry was actively recruiting and supporting women programmers and operators.

The only part of the above statement I disagree with is that the Mr. Snell character was somehow wrong in not giving more weight to what others were telling him about Patty. Mr. Snell was incorrect about how he interpreted the results but I think he acted properly based on what he knew at the time he knew it. The Mr. Snell character should have realized that an I.Q. of 185 for a test he wasn't completely supervising was at least an outlier and that the test should have been performed again while he was supervising the whole thing. However, psychology is a "soft science" and nobody can really know everything that goes on in another person's mind. In my opinion it is proper that any empirical data should outweigh anecdotal evidence until the empirical data is proven to be faulty.

Even after searching through the site as far as I know and can determine this episode of The Patty Duke Show was the first time in at least American broadcast TV to portray anything close to what would later be known as computer hacking. I know that two years prior an episode of Dennis the Menace had a similar plot but I wouldn't count that as computer hacking. Dennis Mitchell (Jay North) caused a grading machine to malfunction by leaving bubble gum on the back of the testing sheet. There was no intent implied that Dennis wanted the machine to deviate from its function and the result was accidental. Patty Lane was trying to alter the computer's behavior. She was trying to get more time and after discovering how to make the computer answer its own questions she remembered how it was done and was shown performing the same actions during the second test. That makes the Patty Lane character the OG computer hacker of television.

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