/OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to save the world. Where is it …

OLPC’s $100 laptop was going to save the world. Where is it …

It was supposed to be the laptop that saved the world.

In late 2005, tech visionary and MIT Media Lab founder Nicholas Negroponte pulled the cloth cover off a small green computer with a bright yellow crank. The device was the first working prototype for Negroponte’s new nonprofit One Laptop Per Child, dubbed “the green machine” or simply “the $100 laptop.” And it was like nothing that Negroponte’s audience — at either his panel at a UN-sponsored tech summit in Tunis, or around the globe — had ever seen.

After UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan offered a glowing introduction, Negroponte explained exactly why. The $100 laptop would have all the features of an ordinary computer but require so little electricity that a child could power it with a hand crank. It would be rugged enough for children to use anywhere, instead of being limited to schools. Mesh networking would let one laptop extend a single internet connection to many others. A Linux-based operating system would give kids total access to the computer — OLPC had reportedly turned down an offer of free Mac OS X licenses from Steve Jobs. And as its name suggested, the laptop would cost only $100, at a time when its competitors cost $1,000 or more.

“We really believe we can make literally hundreds of millions of these machines available to children around the world,” Negroponte promised. “And it’s not just $100. It’s going to go lower.” He hinted that big manufacturing and purchasing partners were on the horizon, and demonstrated the laptop’s versatile hardware, which could be folded into a chunky e-reader, a simple gaming console, or a tiny television.

Then, Negroponte and Annan rose for a photo-op with two OLPC laptops, and reporters urged them to demonstrate the machines’ distinctive cranks. Annan’s crank handle fell off almost immediately. As he quietly reattached it, Negroponte managed half a turn before hitting the flat surface of the table. He awkwardly raised the laptop a few inches, trying to make space for a full rotation. “Maybe afterwards…” he trailed off, before sitting back down to field questions from the crowd.

The moment was brief, but it perfectly foreshadowed how critics would see One Laptop Per Child a few years later: as a flashy, clever, and idealistic project that shattered at its first brush with reality.

If you remember the OLPC at all, you probably remember the hand crank. It was OLPC’s most striking technological innovation — and it was pure vaporware. Designers dropped the feature almost immediately after Negroponte’s announcement, because the winding process put stress on the laptop’s body and demanded energy that kids in very poor areas couldn’t spare. Every OLPC computer shipped with a standard power adapter.

By the time OLPC officially launched in 2007, the “green machine” — once a breakout star of the 21st-century educational technology scene — was a symbol of tech industry hubris, a one-size-fits-all American solution to complex global problems. But more than a decade later, the project’s legacy is more complicated than a simple cautionary tale. Its laptops are still rolling off production lines, and a new model is expected later this year.

And people are still talking about the crank.

Photo by James Bareham / The Verge

Nicholas Negroponte was a self-described optimist, and his business was inventing the future. A professor with decades of experience at MIT, Negroponte had co-founded the university’s influential Media Lab in 1985. He’d been one of the first backers of Wired magazine, where he wrote a column evangelizing the transformative power of technology. And he had a longtime passion for education — where computers, he thought, could be revolutionary.

Negroponte believed in constructionism: an educational theory that said children should learn by making things and solving problems, rather than completing worksheets or attending lectures. In 1982, Negroponte and an MIT colleague and key constructionist figure Seymour Papert paired up for an initiative at a French-funded research center in Senegal, teaching children to program on Apple II computers. (Negroponte did not return requests for an interview for this article.)

By the late 1990s, children’s computing initiatives were a major political priority in the States. President Bill Clinton popularized the idea of a “digital divide” between rich and poor, and some American schools began issuing students individual computers to close the gap. Microsoft and Toshiba sponsored a laptop distribution program called Anytime Anywhere Learning, and Maine funded a statewide initiative with input from Papert himself.

Negroponte, however, was more interested in reaching students who might never have seen a laptop at all. In 1999, he and his wife opened a school in the remote Cambodian village of Reaksmei, equipping it with a satellite dish, generators, and rugged Panasonic Toughbook laptops.

It was a key moment for Negroponte. He considered the program a success, talking to reporters about how children would use the laptops as the only source of electrical light in their homes — “talk about a metaphor and a reality simultaneously,” he quipped at one point. But most schools across the developing world couldn’t afford Toughbooks. They needed a new kind of device.

“How do you take these ideas that we’d been — we think — successfully working with for 40 years and bring them to scale?” says Walter Bender, who was Negroponte’s colleague and would go on to be a co-founder of OLPC. “[Nicholas Negroponte] had the insight that the real issue wasn’t a lack of good ideas. The real issue was a lack of access to computers.”