"Hey, you with the blue in your eyes," coaxes a rasping voice from the other side of the computer room in the Capital Children's Museum. "Come here."
A computer screen flickers. "My name is Wisecracker," the voice says. "Please come and talk to me," it implores. It will keep begging until someone gives in and types his name and some gibberish for Wisecracker to pronounce as only it can do.
The Wisecracker computer is one of the attractions in Capital Children's Museum's new Communications wing, which gives an overview of the ways people have conveyed information, from cave paintings to satellites and beyond.
Visitors enter the exhibit through a dark tunnel, which drips, drips, drips. Rude beasts howl in the distance. The tunnel leads to a chamber full of cave paintings, the first known communication in the darkness of early homo sapiens.
Once beyond that, there is light; an exhibit explores the rudimentary Greek torch system -- the one-if-by-land, two-if-by-sea kind of thing. Kids in a tower signal with flashlight torches to kids on the other shore if the Romans are coming or they just need supplies. Invented around 300 B.C., this system may have been the first way to transmit messages any distance without sending a runner or shouting.
A great hubbub in the room proves to be a Tower of Babel lined with speakers playing recordings of many different languages. This talking staircase leads to another floor of exhibits and the electronic games.
But Wisecracker and company are only a small part of the offerings. There's a maze you find your way through by using symbols, a printing press where visitors can make their own souvenir flyers, a "scriptorium" complete with dried ink dropped on the floor by young monks, a holograph and a strobe room where motions are frozen by light. Before a specially treated vinyl wall, ballerinas and lesser esthetes have been known to leap as the strobe flashes and catches their images briefly on the wall, not quite shadows but more distinct and much more beautiful.
The other day in the Future Center, which is a computer classroom, a group of gifted and talented students were visiting from the London Towne Elementary School in Centreville, Virginia. Instead of exchanging noise with Wisecracker, they were learning a true computer language: The children were talking "Pilot" to the computer through a video display terminal, drawing squares and stars in various colors by typing instructions. Two of the older girls found it more amusing to type lists of couples, and a few of the boys' names were followed by the additional notation of "YUCK" or "HA HA HA HA." This did not compute.
Tracy Hilton, nine, was staring at the screen. "What would you like to do?" asked John Brown, the aide. "Eat lunch," she said. But she soon became interested in making a square. "I see a pattern!" she said as she learned what program to type on the keyboard. But there were a lot of additional lines on the screen when the computer was told to display the square. "Where did all these lines come from?" asked Brown. "Someone must have already programmed it." "Make it forget," said Tracy. Brown cleaned it up for her and then taught her how to make a star.
"Most of these kids have never seen a computer," said their teacher, Ceria Cohen. "They were really nervous." School groups and family groups can use the Future Center, but reservations are required for this section.
Other exhibits are absorbing: Code Hall has a Braille typewriter and a continuously running cartoon that teaches sign language by showing the hand dissolving into the letter it has formed. There's a guide to hobo code, markings hobos have written on houses to describe their dwellers, and a guide to pig Latin. This fairly ancient form of communication can be heard through a Porky-faced receiver. Visitors can operate a ship's blinker; the Morse code is mounted on the wall for serious hands-on.
The communications wing is still growing: A model satellite really works and when completed it will allow kids to phone one another across the room. But they're probably beyond being impressed by telephones, and for now they'll have to be satisfied with launching a satellite into orbit and lining up transmission between Washington and Cairo. The upbeat TV screen tells you when you're doing a good job.
A teleprinter, when operating fully, will send kids' letters to members of Congress.
There's a fully equipped radio station, and a not-so-fully equipped TV station -- in fact, it's empty. "Everything here is donated. We couldn't get anybody to donate television equipment," said Robin Beaman, the museum's public information director, who said most of the money for the wing came from ITT.
The museum considers the Communications wing to be geared to ages 10 and up. People far older than 10 will be reassured to know there is little unnecessary explanation on the walls and a lot to do. For those who are frustrated by buttons that don't push, everything seems to work -- except for a few aberrations from Wisecracker, who, when kids type "hello" for him to pronounce, utters the word "hell."
They're working on it.
COMMUNICATIONS -- At the Capital Children's Museum, Third and H Streets NE. Hours: 10 to 4 Tuesday through Saturday, 1 to 5 Sunday. Admission is $1 for children, $2.50 for adults. Call MET-KIDS for recorded information, 543-8600 for details on Future Center classes.