The Energy Environment Simulator

Energy-Environement Simulator Tenntronics

Photo: Niklas Vollmer.

Sometime in the mid-nineties I was thrift shopping in San Diego with my friend Niklas Vollmer. I can still remember the moment we stumbled on the Energy-Environment Simulator. We couldn’t stop laughing and we realized that we had to buy it. How often do you run into an Energy-Environment Simulator in working condition? It’s been the centerpiece of Nik’s living room ever since, even making a cross country move.

The device demonstrates energy inputs and demands. Depending on how you turn the knobs, you can either engineer a future of never-ending power or, on the other extreme, your own personal zombie apocalypse. One of the energy sources is labeled “new technology.” This could either be solar or that UFO doughnut from the Thrive movie.

The only info we have on it is that it was manufactured by Tenntronics, a defunct company that was in business from the late 1960s through the late 1980s. It came with a handsome storage cabinet that also serves as a pedestal.

Energy-Environment Simulator Tenntronics

Photo: Niklas Vollmer

I’m guessing that the Energy-Environment Simulator is a relic of the 1970s oil crisis and I respect its creator’s attempt to demonstrate the interlocking feedback loops of systems theory in the pre-personal computer era.

Since we all didn’t learn the lesson back in the 1970s, perhaps it’s time to take the Energy-Environment Simulator on the road. Coachella and Burning Man here we come.

If you have any info on this thing or remember seeing one in action, please leave a comment.

Update: Reader Maribeth found the patent for the Energy-Environment Simulator, dated October 8, 1974. From the patent description:

Each participant makes policy decisions to adjust energy demands and energy source allocations and observes, in compressed time, the consequences of their decisions. The time element is adjustable by means of a variable system clock, typically one simulated century passes each minute. The natural energy reserves are simulated in an analog computer circuit and the rate of depletion may be regulated according to well-established data as to quantities and the foretasted rate of depletion. . . . The participants operate the simulator as a game where the objective is to see how long one can keep the society powered adequately without excessively polluting the environment and without exhausting all of the energy reserves.

Here’s the kicker:

The present invention was made during the course of, or under, a contract with the United States Energy Commission.

I have a feeling the game is rigged–I bet you have to crank that nuclear knob in order to keep the lights on.

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  1. If I grip the handle and squeeze hard does it light up and say I’m “Hot Stuff” ?

    Is there a smugness knob for my electric Fiat purchase?

    Crank mine the hell up bro.

  2. Holy crap! In eighth grade, my class divided into pairs to see who could come up with the configuration that would make the world last the longest even though we were pretty much all dooooooomed. THIS WAS USED IN A REAL-LIFE SCHOOL AS AN ENVIRONMENTAL LESSON ON EARTH DAY IN 1990. My partner and I won because we did, as you suspected, turn up the nuclear just to see what would happen.

    It is worth noting that this same science teacher gave another lecture that year that AIDS was nature’s way of cleansing itself of excess humans — especially gay people. Even as an 8th grader in 1990, that didn’t sit right.

    • Wow, just wow. So good to hear from an actual Energy-Environmental Simulator user. And in 1990!!! And, sadly, some teachers are still teaching that same AIDS lesson–a friend of mine said that her son’s high school science teacher just said pretty much the same thing.

  3. Pingback: The Energy Environment Simulator | Root Simple |

  4. My father is a retired college physics professor. In the 1970s he got one of these he used as a teaching tool for high school students, trying to get people interested in science. The benefit was that it spent quite a few evenings at home with us. My siblings and I played with this for hours and hours. I remember, if the pollution from the petroleum and coal use got too high there was an alarm, indicating the public wasn’t too happy.

  5. Pingback: This 1970s Energy Simulator Was Supposed To Make Conservation Fun | Gizmodo Australia

  6. WOW! I’ve been chasing this thing online for years. I never knew what the name was, so I never found much success. I remember using this thing in school in the late 80s. About 6th or 7th grade. We had a lot of fun with it at the time… I remember it being fairly addictive.

    Thank you so much for posting this! 😀

  7. I still have an early version of the device and used it for about 25 years to enhance public understanding of the complexities of the energy environment situation
    It was not rigged toward nuclear since it accounted for and warned about the waste problem. It did lead people to think in terms of research and development since that was the key to a long term solution that minimized pollution and provided enough energy. At the time nuclear fusion seemed like a possibility rather than wind solar etc
    I have manuals if anyone is interested
    By the way what did you pay for it?

  8. The quality of the experience depended on the skill of the presenter. From comments here their experience was not well done. An important nuance involved the five control boards, do you have those, that gave the group shared responsibilities for the future. It became clear that a knowledgable collective response was necessary for survival. That is of course still the case

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