Lite Brite

Last night as my sweetie and I were sharing a big salad and watching TV, she turned to me and said, “We should do Lite Brite!” I readily agreed. I had never seen an actual Lite Brite in action.

You remember Lite Brite, don’t you? It is a backlit frame into which you can stick translucent plastic pegs. The colored pegs glow merrily. Lite Brite! You can paint with light! the jingle went (approximately).

I had given the Lite Brite a lot of thought back when I was roughly four years old, and occasionally thereafter. I only remember little bits and pieces of the kids’ program Captain Kangaroo, but I remember the Lite Brite ads that supported the good Captain and his loyal sidekick, Mr. Greenjeans. I remember the ads very well, because it was one of the earliest engineering challenges I ever tackled. How the heck did the dang thing WORK?

Lite Brite Masterpiece: Ducks

Lite Brite Masterpiece: Ducks

In the ads, the pegs are pushed into a black surface and light up. Sweet! obviously there is something backlit and when a peg is pushed in it glows. At first I tried to come up with a system where pegs could be placed anywhere, and stay in place. And then came the real engineering challenge: making the holes close back up when the peg was removed. This last feature was obvious—otherwise the toy would not be reusable, and the smallest mistake meant you ruined everything.

After more careful observation, I saw that the pegs were always in a grid pattern on the board. So, I realized, there was a grid of holes that the pegs could be punched into. With that knowledge, I imagined a system with little spring-loaded doors for each hole. Push the peg in, the flap opens and light comes through. Pull it out, and the flap closes. I watched the ads closely for any sign of the doors. There was none. The black surface seemed completely uniform. Perplexing. Over the years I mentally fiddled with different designs for the Lite Brite doors that would not be prone to light leaks.

Fast-forward forty years, when I came to live with someone who owns an honest-to-God Lite Brite. At last the Engineering mystery would be resolved.

The answer: black paper. No doors, no flaps, no self-repairing gelatinous layers. You mount opaque paper over the grid and punch holes in it with the pegs. There is no undo. The black papers that come with the LIte Brite have little letters printed on them, for color-by-numbers fun. And really, can you imagine how long the delicate little mechanisms I had been imagining since my very first days of TV watching would have lasted? In my gut I knew that there had to be a simpler answer, but I never let go of my assumption that you could take the pegs back out again.

We sat on the floor, my sweetie and I, taking turns punching in the little pegs (I had trouble differentiating the pink and orange ones before punching them in), and had a good ol’ time. When we were done we kept the Lite Brite plugged in to bask in the glory of our masterpiece. And it was good.


9 thoughts on “Lite Brite

  1. I really need your help, so apologies in advance for going off topic. Since you and the sweetie are both webpage gurus, and others in the bloggcomm (maybe Keith? maybe squirrely joe?) are tech savvy…
    How do you get google to find a page you built? Our research unit has a webpage that serves an international group of scientists. Rather than continually sending out the web address, we would like them to be able to punch in the name of the group, and have the page be one of the more obvious results. Alas, there is an actual for-profit company with the same name (out of germany, I think), that always comes up. We are not out to steal their thunder or compete with them. We just need a google search to come up on the first page of results so it is easy for the scientist to scroll down past all the other results and say “Oh, here we go.”
    If we had the page describe eggs over easy, man we’d be in like flynn. ;-)
    At the moment, our group doesn’t come up at all in the first gazillion pages. Without being so crass as to “game” the system…how do we game the system?

    • Google uses several factors to rank a match. One is a number called Page Rank, which judges how important a page is based on how many other pages refer to it. The more Page Rank the referring pages have, the more mojo they spread. Getting your Comm to link to the page from their pages will help a bit.

      Other things you can do: Make sure the key words are in the title of the page, and are in larger text near the top. (Google doesn’t mention the meta tags, but other systems might still use them.) Another thing to do is to change your page regularly (‘freshness’ counts).

      Google is happy to tell you how to improve your ranking as well. Go to and sign up (not as big a hassle as it first appears), then start clicking around. It will tell you exactly where you rank with common search phrases. Google analytics is all about helping people who really deserve higher matches to get them.

      Finally, it’s worth dropping a polite letter to that other company, asking them if they would kindly put a little note on their page redirecting your colleagues.

        • Should have put in the url for the analytics.

          I don’t use the services as much as I should, but this will give you advice on keywords and whatnot. Also consider all the different phrases that searchers might use (always a surprising number) and make sure those words are all covered on your site (with relevance – Google is pretty good at detecting a pile of keywords).

  2. Our lite Brite relied on the same little elf that turns the refrigerator light off and on. He eventually got fed up with the long hours and quit. The one in the oven burned up.

  3. Jer – sorry to grab you here, but a girl’s got needs! I want to give you money – for your software that is, but with a haggle, but my emails keep getting returned…rumor has it that the software hut may be orphaned?? What up?

    • Good thing I read the whole message before I deleted this as spam!

      Rumors of the orphanage of Jer’s Novel Writer are justified but premature. Just last night I was composing a long message to the community about what is going on with it. What it boils down to is that I’m broke and Jer’s Novel Writer doesn’t pay the bills. As I spend less time on it, the income drops off even more, causing a vicious cycle.

      I will definitely keep the software alive, however, as I use it every day. I have a big list of improvements I’d like to make if I can just figure out how to get someone to pay me to do them.

      I’ll put up a longer message at the forums, but that’s essentially where things stand. I’ll still happily accept money, and I do get all software keys out eventually. The payment button is at

      Thanks for your support!

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