Surprising Origins of 7 Classic Toys: Many childhood memories include hours spent casting Play-Doh, or watching a Slinky come down the stairs, or marveling at the transfer from a newspaper comic to a simple wad of Silly Putty. But these famous fancy toys didn’t start out as products for children.
Failed experiments, re-imaginations and unexpected inspirations form the story of seven of America’s most beloved toys, all of which have gone on to record bumper sales decades after they hit the market. .
What it is: A stretchy pink ball that comes in a plastic egg
Who invented it: General Electric engineer James Wright, who was trying to reproduce rubber
The backstory: Wright accidentally discovered the compound for Silly Putty in 1943, while working on a World War II US government project to discover a rubber substitute. His mixture of boric acid and silicone did not work for this purpose, but the resulting putty caught the interest of a toy store owner, who saw playful possibilities in the fact that he was bouncy. , stretchable and moldable. After marketer Peter Hodgson introduced the invention to the masses in 1950, it became a hit and Crayola acquired the brand in 1977. Silly Putty now has a place in the permanent collections of the Smithsonian National Museum of American History.
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What it is: A brightly colored plastic hoop designed to be wrapped around the waist
Who invented it: Arthur “Spud” Melin, co-founder of the novelty toy company Wham-O, patented his iteration of a centuries-old idea in 1958
The backstory: In one of the most meteoric launches in toy history, the Hula Hoop sold around 25 million units in just four months after its 1958 debut. Melin and his partner William Knerr did not exactly invented the idea. Hoops date back at least as far as the ancient Greeks. (Think of the training equipment for the robe and sandals set.) And for centuries, kids around the world have found entertainment by spinning simple wooden hoops by hand or with a stick. Nineteenth-century British sailors are credited with marrying the idea of ”circling” with “hula” after meeting Hawaiian dancers on their travels. But it was the sight of Australian kids spinning a bamboo version in gym classes that inspired Melin and Knerr to make and market the Hula Hoop. Their timing couldn’t have been better, as rock ‘n’ roll ascendancy – and Elvis Presley’s infamous hips – made young people want to spin theirs. (For its part, the Soviet Union banned the toy as a symbol of “the indecency of American culture.”) But success was difficult to maintain: after selling around 100 million Hula Hoops in the first year, the market was saturated. Sales have picked up somewhat with the advent of new versions, including one with ball bearings inside that makes a “whoosh” sound.
READ MORE: Barbie through the ages
What it is: A high powered water pistol that claimed to be able to shoot water up to 50 feet away
Who invented it: Nuclear engineer and part-time inventor Lonnie Johnson, who had an accident with a heat pump
The backstory: Johnson was working as a spaceship systems engineer on the Galileo mission to Jupiter in 1982 when an accident caused a revelation: after a prototype heat pump caused a leak, projecting a jet of water through the piece, he immediately saw the potential water gun. Johnson, a graduate of Tuskegee University and a US Air Force veteran who holds more than 120 patents, continued to harness that air pressure via an arm pumping action to create a high speed water gun that far surpassed any other in the toy market. After pitching his idea to Larami Corporation, the toy debuted in 1990, first under the name Power Drencher. A year later, the water pistol was rebranded as Super Soaker, became the best-selling toy of 1992, and grossed over $ 1 billion in sales.
What it is: A molding toy that looks like a cross between clay and bread dough
Who invented it: Kutol Products, an industrial cleaning products company
The backstory: As gas, oil and electric heating replaced coal in American homes after WWII, Cincinnati-based Kutol Products was rapidly losing market for its non-toxic clay-like compound used to clean sooty charcoal dust from wallpaper. Enter the owner’s sister-in-law, who tested soft and pliable stuff with her kindergarten class as a molding toy – and Play-Doh was born. Over $ 3 billion worth of yellow cans have sold since Play-Doh launched in 1956, with caps from TV host Captain Kangaroo that sparked geese interest early on, and the introduction into 1960 from the Play-Doh Fun Factory, which allowed porridge to be pressed into specific shapes, further increasing sales. After changing hands several times, Play-Doh was acquired by Hasbro in 1991.
What it is: A rebounding coil spring famous for “walking” down
Who invented it: Mechanical engineer Richard James, trying to improve the stability of WWII warships
The backstory: Many Americans may remember the jingle, “A spring, a spring, a wonderful thing, everyone knows it’s slinky!” But they may not know that the inflatable toy coil, famous for tumbling end to end, was the accidental invention of a mechanical engineer who was trying to find an instrument to stabilize warships during WWII. . Richard James’ idea of the 80-foot-long wire spring coil didn’t work, but the fact that the sleek, sinuous coil spring could “work” on just about anything made him think that it would make a great toy. Sales started slowly, but when a Philadelphia Gimbel department store accepted a demo in 1945, all 400 units sold in 90 minutes and the Slinky toy took off. Over the years, it has been used for creative alternative uses: it served as a makeshift antenna for radio soldiers during the Vietnam War and was featured prominently on a Space Shuttle Discovery TV show in 1985 to show how it worked in zero gravity. (“It kind of sags,” astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon said.)
READ MORE: 10 Holiday Toys From The Decade
What it is: A construction toy made of nested wooden logs
Who invented it: Architect John Lloyd Wright, inspired by a drawing by his famous father, Frank Lloyd Wright
The backstory: Architect Frank Lloyd Wright may have designed innovative structures like Fallingwater and the Guggenheim Museum, but his son, John Lloyd Wright, also an architect, gave the world Lincoln Logs. The miniature notched building logs were first produced between 1916 and 1917, inspired by the earthquake-resistant design of the former Wright of the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, a project in which John was involved. The packaging featured a photo of Abraham Lincoln with the slogan “Interesting Toys That Characterize the Spirit of America.” The set included instructions for building the President’s childhood cabin as well as Uncle Tom’s fictional cabin.
Magic ball 8
What it is: A DIY clairvoyance tool in the shape of a billiard ball
Who invented it: Albert Carter, son of — what else? —A clairvoyant from Cincinnati
The backstory: Inventor Albert Carter based his early 1944 Syco-Seer prototype on a billboard that his sighted mother used with her clients. It used the basic concept of today’s Magic 8 Ball, a kind of crystal ball that housed dice in a cloudy, viscous liquid. (Carter used molasses, writes Tim Walsh, author of Timeless Toys: classic toys and the playmakers who created them.) Carter applied for a patent for his “Liquid Filled Dice Shaker” in 1944, but did not live until it was granted in 1948. He was also not there when the Sales really started to take off in 1950 after a company called Brunswick Billiards asked Carter’s company, Alabe Crafts, to rework it to look like an eight ball with a 20-sided die. The toy was eventually bought by Mattel, which claims to sell eight million balls a year. A word of warning: If you ask if you can put your Magic 8 Ball in your carry-on baggage, TSA’s response is “My sources say no”.