littleBits created a system of magnetically connected circuit building blocks. It didn’t do much to teach you about circuit design and electrical engineering, but was intended to abstract signal as a toy and prototyping tool. This let people make experiments with sensors and actuators and dig deeper only if necessary/academically appropriate.

There’s a surprising amount of prior art though. Lectron was a tool from Raytheon in the 60s that encased electronic parts in clear plastic dominoes with magnets to ensure electrical contact when tiled side-by-side. The problem it solved was breadboarding: kids especially could more rapidly cobble together circuits this way, swap out a resistor, change a push button for a potentiometer, etc. The level of abstraction was certainly that of a Radio Shack 30-in-one electronics lab.

What eventually became the “code kit” had its origins in prototyping a game-making tool for a 16x16 LED matrix paired up with an Arduino-compatible microcontroller module. When asked how to expand this into a more general purpose learn-to-code tool, there was a wild amount of research to draw on.

Who’s carrying the torch? QUBS have some nice wooden toys that teach something in between assembly and logo turtles.