These days, most super-selling toys and games are created in a sea of focus tests, synergistic branding, and qualitative post launch marketing studies than could have ever been imagined in the toy industry of yesteryear. In this blast from the past, we’ll look at 5 classic toys and games that were created by complete accident.
Way back in 1943, a Naval Engineer by the name of Richard T. James was working on a project to develop methodologies to stabilize important nautical equipment on rough seas. Various springs, magnets, and other items were high on a shelf, which he accidentally knocked over. As all of the other times steadily fell to the ground, he watched, bemused, as a lone tension spring “stepped” across his desk, down a stack of books and on to a floor. Now, while you or I might have decided that a poltergeist had invaded our office, good ole James was so struck with inspiration, that he continued experimenting with various wire gauges and tensions until his creation was perfected.
Betty, his wife, actually named the clever little device the Swedish word “Slinky” which essentially means “sleek,” and thus decades of future children would give up sections of their brain to the Slinky theme song:
Perhaps unsurprisingly, Slinky didn’t actually sell all that well at the outset, until James convinced Gimbels department store to allow him to demo the little novelty. Once folks could see it in action, he sold out of his first 400 unites in under ninety minutes. Demos always mean more with this little tension coil.
4. Silly Putty
Back in World War II, Rubber was in very high demand. Used in everything from vehicle parts, to protective clothing like gas masks, everyone was on the lookout for a synthetic rubber that could shore up the shortages, and preferably could be created out in the field.
Enter Earl Warrick, Harvey Chin, James Right, and the historically namesaked Rob Roy McGregor. The actual inventor of the putty is disputed, but what’s clear is that somewhere in the mix of these four men, the researchers discovered that mixing silicone oil with boric acid would create a bouncy, stretchy, rubbery (but not rubbery enough to be rubber), mold free, and non toxic substance. After realizing that you couldn’t REALLY make boots, plug rafts, or fix tires with the stuff, it was sent to scientists around the world to see if anyone could find or create a practical substance. Personally, I think it’s ability to send spy messages should have been apparent, but history says it wasn’t…. then again, you never really know with spies.
Eventually, it landed with Marketing consultant Peter Hodgson, who slapped the concoction in a plastic egg, priced it at $1, named it Silly Putty, and then managed to sell 250,000 eggs in just three days. Pretty much everyone has played with Silly Putty at one time or another, and University of Michigan scientists are even using it for research, but even their own Silly Putty marketing hedges the “fun” claim. This 1982 commercial proclaims that it’s fun for “most everyone”.
Originally, American homesteads were heated by wood, until burgeoning cities, and localized deforestation made wood burning less than optimum. By 1885, the majority of homes would move over to the more efficient and low cost use of coal heating, which heated great, but had an unfortunate side effect of coal residue building up in chimneys of the day, backing up the airflow, and billowing back out into your home. This often caked a significantly thick layer of coal dust on your walls, furniture, and American actors with charming, yet horrible cockney accents.
Enter Kutol Product’s inventor, Noah McVicker who tinkered and toiled to create a putty-like substance that could clean coal residue from wallpaper…which would have been awesome if it didn’t come during the transition of the entire country away from coal burning energy to the much cleaner natural gas heating method that most homes still use today. Add to that the introduction of washable vinyl-based wallpaper that could be wiped down with a sponge, and suddenly there was no market need, and the dough made of water, flour, salt, mineral oil and boric acid would sit on a shelf until McVicker’s nephew would join the company and happen upon the product, deciding to sell it at Macy’s and Marshall Field’s in 1956. By 1958, Play-Doh had made nearly $3 Million in sales, and artistic children would be freed to sculpt and mold, while other kids would just eat it without risk of painful toxic death. YAY!
2. Silly String
Imagine you are out on the playground. Not one of the clean, well maintained, helicopter-mom maintained playgrounds of the present, but rather one of the tetanus infested, sharp edged, scalding hot metal contraptions of the 70s and 80s. You’re doing a kick ass flip on the monkey bars, when *THWAK* you mistime your dismount and fracture your arm. Luckily someone has a can of “foamable resinous composition” which they spray on your damaged limb to create an instant cast. That was the goal of Leonard A Fish, inventor, and Robert P. Cox, chemist. Their invention can be seen in the intended form in more recent products, but when they first tried numerous nozzles to distribute the product, they happened upon one that produced a thick string which held together unless broken and shot 20-30 feet across the room. Fish was inspired to turn the product into a spray toy by reducing adhesion properties, and adding fun colors. In classic sitcom form, Fish got an interview with Wham-O, and subsequently sprayed an entire can all over the exec and his office. After being asked to leave, Fish got a telegram the next day with an order for 24 cans of what was then called “Squibbly” and Halloween in Hollywood would never be the same. Let’s take a moment and mourn for the medical industries loss though…insta casts sound pretty cool.
Although the original inventor of the game that came to be known as Monopoly DID set out to make a game, she was targeting a significantly different variation than the one we play now. This particular tale is so deep and winding that there is a fantastic book about it called, “The Monopolists: Obsession, Fury and the Scandal Behind the World’s Favorite Board Game.” I’ll try to condense the summary version of it into a few short paragraphs, though.
See, for the past 45 years or so, the public has been given a story about the creation of Monopoly that included a game solely created by Charles Darrow, a heater salesman from Philadelphia, who created a well-loved Capitalist board game after losing his job following the 1929 Stock Market Crash, and sold it to Parker Brothers. In actual history, it’s quite a bit more muddied, with the original concept being traced back to Elizabeth Magie, a Georgist Philosophy follower who first envisioned the game as a way to teach adults and children alike that economic value derived from natural resources and natural opportunities should belong equally to all residents of a community. Through fan-made iterations of her original designs (in many ways, similar to today’s video game modding community) the board game took on directions that the initial designer could never have conceived of, and Darrow’s published version was only one off-shoot of that design. As a social justice crusader, Magie created two sets of rules for the game: An Anti-monopolist set in which all were rewarded when wealth was created, and a monopolistic set in which the goal was to create monopolies and completely crush your opponents. Funny creatures, we humans are, as the Monopolistic version was the one that actually caught on, and families are still completely dominating each other with hotels to this day.