Before Siri, there was Chester
In 1969 Chester was a popular guy, and, just like Siri, the best way to reach him was by phone. An innovative technology for its time, Chester was a dial-in phone switch machine. Users with touch-tone phones could call Chester and listen to preprogrammed lessons, lectures or stereo music 24 hours a day, seven days a week. In a time before smart phones, the internet, even personal computers, Chester was a hit.
With its human name (after Chester Electronics in Connecticut, which installed the system), Chester was embraced by users like a person, not unlike C-3PO, the humanoid robot in Star Wars. Bringing Chester to Bellevue College was the brainchild of Dr. Boyd Bolvin, the former associate dean of instruction and director of Learning Resources.
“People from all over the country and even Europe phoned in to use it,” said Bolvin. “Visitors came to see it, including then-Gov. Dan Evans.”
Chester was also a news sensation.“We were interviewed by television Channels 4, 5 and 7. In 1974 The Seattle Times did a front page story on Chester,” Bolvin said. “As a result, we received more than 100,000 calls in a 24-hour period, causing the dial-access system to break down. After Chester was in business again, the original curiosity subsided and we received about 30,000 calls a month.”
Adam Burke, Media Center manager, was a student working in the Library Media Center (LMC) at that time. “As I recall, the foreign language tapes and old radio shows were popular playback items, and Martin Luther King and John F. Kennedy speeches also.”
When Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward, of Watergate fame, came to campus to speak, the college recorded the speech and made it available on Chester. Back in Washington, the Post staff called Chester to listen.
Heraclitus of Ephesus said, “There is nothing permanent except change.” And that is particularly true with technology. Chester lived a good life and served the college well, but ultimately his usefulness was surpassed when desktop computers became common in the 1980s, and the proverbial plug was pulled. While Chester might seem primitive now, he was very special in his time, and an important first step in making information accessible to all.
– by Sharon Berg
Dr. Boyd Bolvin, Bellevue College’s early technology visionary
Last Updated June 2, 2017