It’s rare to see engineers getting up in the morning and saying, “Hey, I could spend my day making toys for the kids. In general, engineers have somewhat more ambitious views. But that does not necessarily prevent them from becoming rich, once their ambitions have been reduced, by reselling their invention, which is useless in the adult world, to toy merchants who see immense potential in it among children.
1. The magic slate, an engineering accident
It is to André Cassagnes, a French electrician who worked in an advanced wallpaper company, that we owe the creation of the magic slate. One day when he was noting measurements in pencil on a wall, he realized that his notes appeared on the other side of the wall: the electrostatic charges of the aluminum particles present in the factory were responsible for the phenomenon. . After successfully repeating and improving the experiment at home, he developed a prototype which he presented at an international inventors’ fair, which caught the eye of investors who decided to commercialize the magic slate.
2. The slinky, from the shipbuilding industry
In 1943, Richard James, an American naval engineer based in Philadelphia, worked on the development of springs that could support and stabilize very fragile instruments during transport by boat. Failing to do so, he inadvertently drops one and realizes that he manages to descend the stairs on his own. Finding the system rather funny, he then had the good idea to make a toy of it. A toy that absolutely everyone has had, even if no one knows its name.
3. The silly putty
Around the same time, the American government was extending the biftons to finance research on silly putty, this silicone material which has non-Newtonian properties. At the time, the rubber used by armies was rotten rotten rotten and the Americans had private players try to find a synthetic substitute. General Electric has taken up the gauntlet.
That’s how the silly putty was invented, but nobody knew what to do with it. It wasn’t an effective replacement for rubber, and no one had a clue who to sell it to. Eventually, the scientists managed to pass the baby off to a toy factory, with the idea that the kids weren’t picky anyway. All you had to do was wrap the stuff in little eggs and count on the kids to play with it for hours. Deal.
4. The Pez, an invention to quit smoking
We are in Vienna in 1927 when Eduard Haas III, a guy whose name implied that he had it in his noggin, was looking for a way to get his smoking friends to stop smoking, because he couldn’t stand the smell of tobacco. Eduard thought that with little peppermint candies, he could pull it off. He therefore developed the first candy called pfefferminz which he hastened to wedge into a packaging that looked like a lighter, just to do things well and to appeal to smokers. It was not until the end of the Second World War that exiled to the United States, Eduard Haas III had the idea of rebranding his things by putting childish colors and a toy at the top. The Pez was going to take over the world.
In the 1930s, Noah McVicker invented modeling clay, but his goal was to make it a wallpaper cleaner that wouldn’t harm wallpaper. But soon, institutes took over the product because it was full of non-toxic substances and kept children busy… Soon, the company followed the trend and remarketed the modeling clay under the name of Play-Doh.
In 1871, a guy named William Russel Frisbee started his sweet pie factory. Sweet pies in-you-want-here that sold like hotcakes and arrived on a small, characteristically round plate. The frisbee pie company thus developed for years without knowing that the students had fun throwing the pie dish at the end of the picnics in a kind of improvised competition. It was at Yale that the sport became extremely popular and Russel’s box thought it needed to make a specific plastic tool, the patent for which was later bought by Wham-O.
7. The aerosol string
In the 1970s, two doctors, Leonard Fish and Robert Cox, were working on a new way to cast patients who had broken bones. This is how they experimented with an aerosol capable of applying a thick paste to the injured part, before realizing that it was useless, at least in the medical field. Because the spray string, or silly string, would become an extremely popular toy when sold to the Wham-O company.
8. The Rubik’s Cube
In May 1974, a Hungarian architecture teacher, Ern? Rubik, is developing a small cube capable of rotating on itself with the idea of interesting his students in 3D geometry and offering a new pedagogical approach. We don’t know if it worked, but a friend quickly pointed out to him that with little touches of color on each side, we ended up with a crazy toy capable of driving everyone crazy. The Rubik’s Cube was born and quickly became popular first in Hungary and then internationally.