80s, 90s, Blog, Computers, It Came from Canada, Tech — October 22, 2014 4:47 pm

It Came from Canada: Unisys ICON Computer

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I’ve wanted to write about the ICON computer for some time now and I always wanted to wait until I owned one. Spoiler: I do not. But I always hoped one would make its way to a thrift store (and therefore into my home and my heart) or a shady buddy of mine would happen to have one in their possession through nefarious means and fork it over (again, home and heart).

I can’t wait any longer. Maybe this will push the thrift store gods to bestow an ICON upon me.

icon-001Photo Credit: Personal Computer Museum.

In the 80s and 90s, when I was in grade school, we had computers in the classroom. It’s not like it is now– we had two computers shrouded in mystery in the back. No one was really jumping over each other to use them, either. In fact, we had mandatory scheduled computer time. About once a month, you had to spend an hour or two sitting in front of the computer. This happened during regular classroom lessons. Didn’t want to go on the computer? Wanted to read more Bunnicula? Too damned bad. You’re on that computer. You’ve stopped learning for two hours and then bam suddenly you’ve missed that long division lesson and now all your dreams of being an accountant have flown away. You could have made a nice name for yourself and had a successful career and an in-ground pool, but noooo, you had to go get a liberal arts degree and now you’re a freelance writer a.k.a. unemployed.

But I digress.

These weren’t just any computers collecting dust in the back of the classroom. Remember, this is an “It Came From Canada” article. I also came from Canada. And so did the Unisys ICON.


The Atari 5200 Trackball. Not to be confused with the Unisys ICON. Photo Credit: B & C ComputerVisions.

In the early 80s, schools were buying whatever computers (usually the Commodore PETs) all willy nilly. The Ontario Ministry of Education recognized the importance of computers and wanted the same computers for students across the board, so they decided to build their own: the Unisys ICON. This was based on the Intel 286 and thought it was an Atari 5200 with a gaddang trackball built into the thing (their reasoning was that people would drop or lose the mouse. Not going to argue that).

BUT WAIT. Before the ICON hit schools, and before the ICON was called the ICON, it was nicknamed “The Bionic Beaver”. Goddammit Canada. Can you not?

The computers made their way into schools in 1984 where they stayed for a decade. In 1994, the program was discontinued. And here’s where the real heartbreak sets in (and also the reason why I haven’t found an ICON of my own):

When 1994 rolled around and the ICONs were taken out of the classroom, they were all destroyed: hardware and software. Archives Ontario refused to take any of it.

Also frustrating: the ICON was designed so that users never had to touch a disk. All ICONs ran their programs off of a server. Even if you have an ICON, you need that server as well for all those programs.

icon-002Photo Credit: Personal Computer Museum.

The Wikipedia article for the ICON lists its games, but the only one I remember playing is A Week in the Life of… where you role-played (not in the fun way) as a teenager. You had to buy groceries and not die of hunger pangs (I usually did). Interestingly, Ernie’s Big Splash was ported to the ICON, but I don’t remember playing it. Looking at the list of games, though, I wish I could go back and play them all. Lemonade Stand (“an educational game where you set lemonade prices based on the weather forecast”) and Peggie’s Potluck (“a game where you make stew for people with a combination of ingredients”) sound fucking riveting.

icon-003Photo Credit: Personal Computer Museum.

We were never given any instructions on how to use the computers and I somehow doubt any of my early grade school teachers had any clue how to use them themselves. I had already gone through a couple computers at home, so I didn’t have any trouble with them and they were pretty straight forward from what I remember.

This lack of instruction also meant that we didn’t do any programming or any actual learning on these things. Just set up our lemonade stands to do better in rainy weather. If we’re being honest, no one ever really played any games on these things. We just spun that trackball as fast as we could every time we were near one. If you ever see a trackball, try to restrain yourself. Guess what? You can’t.

After about the sixth grade, I don’t remember ICONs in school much, but that would be right around 1994-1995. Some of the classrooms may have still had them, but we ended up with a resource center full of Apple Macintosh Classic computers and a couple PCs running Windows 3.1 (and getting online on those babies when I was in the eighth grade was something).

icon-004Photo Credit: Personal Computer Museum.

Still though, anyone who grew up in Ontario in the 80s and 90s will immediately think of their time on that ICONic computer, spinning the hell out of that poor trackball.

What are some of your early education computer memories? Did you ever experience an ICON? Leave us a comment and let us know!


  • Yep, I sure did have many experiences with the ICON computers (3 different models of the ICON to be exact) in grade school in the early 1990s.  We even had dot-matrix printers connected to them.  I remember playing is A Week in the Life of… and Cross Country Canada.  Yeah, that poor trackball sure took a beating.

    • Same here only I had exposure to four models. The original Icon, Icon 2 (most common version I’ve seen), Icon 3, and Icon PC which could run DOS and Windows 3.1. I remember one icon having 8MB of RAM installed since it was also a print server to which I happily got Duke Nukem 3D working on it (albeit slowly).

  • Pretty sure I was first exposed to the ICON in 1991 or 92 in Mississauga. I remember the back of the computer had to coaxial cables running to it. The cable started at the server (in the library in my school) and it was strung throughout the whole school, classroom to classroom. Most classrooms had one or two ICONs. It didn’t take us long to learn if you disconnected a coaxial cable somewhere throughout the network, it would cause the network to fault and all the machines would stop working. I did this pretty much once a week, drove our sysadmin lady (who I remember being very nice) crazy. I too wanted to get my hands on one of these machines a few years ago, just for fun. I realized it just wasn’t going to happen knowing that the server was needed & reading they were destroyed. I’m not sure if the network was standard 10 meg thinnet ethernet or not, but I remember the OS being kinda “funny” – like DOS & UNIX at the same time, could be wrong about that – too many years ago. I do remember the sysadmin lady at the school letting me have the administrator password on the server (at this point I stopped disconnecting coax cables to cause trouble and tried to learn about the system). I poked around the users manual, learned a little about the server (like the big SCSI cables connecting the 20 meg hard disk to the CPU) – system had a modem attached too (which I never could figure out what to do with it at the time). Fun times – but the games were better on the Commodore 64’s. I drive by that same school on my way to work daily – I often wonder if those coax cables are still strung up in the ceilings 23-24 years later!  Mrs. Bandiera if you’re out there, thanks for trusting a geeky kid with the admin codes and sorry for unplugging those cables!!!

  • We had the original ICON’s when I was in school. At that time, they were only in the library and were an earlier version than shown above. The only classrooms that had their own computers were one with a special needs student, and they were Commodore 64s.

    That said, we LOVED going to the library to play games. Mostly we played What Is The Weather, Lemonade Stand, and MathMaze or MathWiz or something.

    Because everyone spun the trackballs for fun, they barely worked and now you had to keep spinning them as your cursor walked very slowly across the screen.

  • I was a teacher when the “bionic beavers” hit Ontario schools. Since I had university level knowledge about programing computers I was put in charge of the computers at my school. They were wonderful machines for their time far more powerful than the PET computers. I had grade school students learning basic programing on the Icons. I had the office staff using an electric type writer as a printer since the QNX system made it dirt simple to write code for any attachment. I was the keeper of the world’s only public software library for the Icon computers. Teachers all over the province used to write programs and send them to me for free distribution. Sorry, non of these have survived.
    The computers had 3 levels of access, student level, staff level and administrator. Staff had access to a report card template that we had. Staff could restrict student access to various programs. The administrator access gave full control to everything including the operating program. One student in southern Ontario discovered that with a 3 key press he could hack into the administrator level. The folks at Unisys were not top happy to hear about this. I sometimes wonder what happened to that student. What is he doing today.? In some ways the Icons were much more educational than computers are today. Today we jusy blindly follow other people’s programming. Then, we had to learn to make our own programs. Sound like an old foggie don’t I. Well I am and pround of it.

  • I too have memories of the ICON computer system. I purchased millions of dollars worth of the machines for classrooms in our school board. Obviously, in the early years, teachers had little exposure to computers and MOST had no idea what to do with them. From the experiences you describe, your teachers were out to lunch with these things. They probably stayed after school, and when you and your classmates left, they sat there spinning the trackball till the caretaker turned off the lights.

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