5 Toys That Started Out As Very Serious Big Boy Inventions
Some inventors have to struggle with the applications borne from their inventions. They could invent what they think is some harmless doodad only to find that it was apparently the last missing piece for a more efficient napalm flamethrower/war-crime dispenser. But one realm of invention where you’re less likely to accidentally become a merchant of death is toy design. The most violence you’re likely to be responsible for is a holiday mall melee or a sibling wrestling match.
Not all beloved toys started that way from the outset, though. Sometimes, in a pursuit of some non-play, super serious need, somebody noticed that their possible solution was a whole lot of fun. Plenty of toys today have roots in failed problem-solving. Sure, you’d probably rather be remembered for a functioning artificial heart than some strange Heartbeat Barbie, but success is success, and it’s rather hard to come by, so I recommend you happily ride that gift horse without any knowledge of its mouth.
Here are five toys invented by accident in pursuit of more important products…
We’ll kick it off with a toy that I think a lot of people know was invented by accident. In fact, the word “invented” might be a little generous. It’s not like the world wasn’t familiar with springs before the Slinky ambled its way down the staircases of America. Not to say effort wasn’t put in on the modern Slinky, but we’re not creating new chemical compounds here.
The idea sprouted in the brain of a naval engineer named Richard James. He was doing some work with springs, as engineers do, when one tipped out of the box at an extremely fortuitous angle. It landed in the perfect manner to demonstrate the famous walking properties of the Slinky. James was so delighted by the little spring’s step that he spent years developing the most enjoyable possible spring for playtime. His wife Betty topped it off by naming it the Slinky. It’s been popular ever since, both for its intended purpose, as well as being whirled around children’s heads until something important gets broken.
Whether Silly String was a good invention depends heavily on whether you’re the one spraying it or the one cleaning it up. Kids love it, and parents and janitors view it as the quickest way to decrease the amount of sleep they’re about to get that night. Given the amount of nurse visits and family bathroom first aid prompted by Silly String to the eye, you might be surprised to know that it was originally invented for medical purposes.
Leonard A. Fish and Robert P. Cox, two men with thoroughly enjoyable middle-initial-last-name combinations, invented Silly String together. Not as a birthday party menace, but as a speedy spray-on cast for broken bones. When one of their test nozzles fired out a string at a positively silly velocity, well, they suddenly had two products. And the world’s backyard grass cried out, “Noooooooooooooooooooooooo.”
War’s appetite for human death is rivaled only by its appetite for resources. You want to keep mowing down the people on the other side, you’re going to need to feed a whole lot of raw material into the war machine. One material that the United States was alarmed to see the bottom of the barrel while scraping into their tank-tread-makers was rubber. They rationed it, limiting each family in the U.S. to a single condom per year, leading to the “baby boom.”
If you just googled that, god bless you, you gullible, beautiful soul. They did not. But they did put out a bounty on a usable synthetic rubber, and a man named James Wright went to chase that bag. He failed, since the material he created, though curious, wasn’t usable as a rubber replacement. At which point he threw up his hands, sent it to other scientists around the world, and basically said, “Feel free to fuck with this.”
It captured the fascination of the scientists and their family and friends, until a sample reached a toy store owner named Ruth Fallgatter and an advertising consultant named Peter Hodgson. It wasn’t an immediate hit, and Fallgatter dropped the putty from her shelves. Hodgson continued to believe in it, though, and tweaked the marketing, including packaging it in the famous eggs. This was enough to eventually land on the desk of a New Yorker writer who wrote about their fascinating new time-waster, and Silly Putty took off.
Sometimes, an invention isn’t a wholesale new product, but rather a dramatic improvement on an existing one. This was the case when the classic water gun was left high and dry as the Super Soaker revolutionized firing a medium-painful stream of water directly into your younger sibling’s face. Even now, nobody wants to be the one left with a shitty Dollar Store squirt-gun as some rich kid lays into the pool party with a backpack-equipped blaster like they’re Henry Kissinger in Cambodia.
The guy who outfitted the world’s bullies with a more efficient hydration system? Dr. Lonnie Johnson, a genuinely brilliant engineer who’s got plenty of real patents to his name. As that might suggest, the Super Soaker came out of important work for an important organization: NASA. He was working on developing cooling systems using pressurized water, and when one prototype fired a laser-precise water jet across a bathroom, he realized he might have a viable side hustle here. He even had experience in the fake-war toy category, given that he already held patents used in Nerf guns. His only mistake was not naming his company Playtheon.
Speaking of fake wars, let’s look at something that’s basically just a military training exercise thrown into the back of a Dave & Buster’s: laser tag. It doesn’t take half an iota of imagination to see the military applications of laser tag as a training tool. Hell, they might even blast fog machines to replicate war-time conditions, for all we know. Before laser tag took over birthday parties, it was born as MILES (Multiple Integrated Laser Engagement System) and was used in combat training by the United States Army, given that real bullets have a tendency to permanently take out a lot of the participants in their exchange.
I will warn you: By no means tell this fact to the guy at your team-building event who’s already using Navy SEAL hand signals he learned from Call of Duty.
Eli Yudin is a stand-up comedian in Brooklyn. You can follow him on Twitter and Instagram at @eliyudin and listen to his podcast, What A Time to Be Alive, about the five weirdest news stories of the week, on Apple Podcasts, Spotify or wherever else you get your podcasts.