Some of the world’s most popular toys have secret pasts. While these toys and games are now inseparable from the fun they’ve brought millions, they were initially designed for entirely different purposes, with origins ranging from the military to the forestry industry. These toys are very different, but share one thing in common: they evolved beyond their intended uses when someone recognized their potential for entertainment value.
10. Silly String
Silly String, a flexible stream of plastic shot out of an aerosol can as a quickly-solidifying liquid, has delighted several generations of children (and vexed several generations of parents) since it became a popular toy in the early 1970s. However, the original inventors of Silly String, Leonard Fish and Robert Cox, intended their product to serve a more serious purpose: an instant spray-on cast for sprains and broken bones.
When testing nozzles for packaging their product, Fish discovered that one nozzle yielded long plastic-y strings and saw its potential to become a novelty item, and changed the formula to be less sticky and more colorful. The two secured a meeting with Wham-O, a toy company, to try to market their invention, and the company licensed the product, which came to be known as Silly String. Though some municipalities have banned it, especially on Halloween, citing its nuisance potential and the cost of clean-up, Silly String continues to be a mainstay of birthday parties and celebrations. It has also, thanks to innovative American soldiers, found a new, life-saving use: detecting tripwires around bombs.
Thanks to its catchy jingle, “Everyone knows it’s Slinky” now. But when Richard James, a naval mechanical engineer, first invented the Slinky, he was actually working on tension springs that could stabilize shipboard equipment in rough seas. But after knocking some of his samples over on a shelf and watching them “walk” down instead of falling, James knew the product had more potential as a novelty product, and refined it to improve the walking motion.
Richard’s wife, Betty, with the help of a dictionary, coined the name “Slinky” and a toy was born. Richard built a machine to manufacture the Slinky and, after some initial challenges getting retailers interested, the product became a hit after a local department allowed a Slinky demonstration—the first run of 400 Slinkys sold out in minutes.
While there is some controversy over how and when the plastic disc that came to be know as the Frisbee was invented, there’s no dispute that the inspiration for the product came from tossing something else entirely—tin pie and cake pans. Bridgeport, Connecticut’s Frisbie Baking Company sold popular pies to surrounding colleges. When the pies were eaten, the game began, with the empty pie plates being tossed around for sport.
The plastic disc was inventor Fredrick Morrison’s way of modifying the cake pan beach toss game he had long enjoyed with his wife into a toy for the mass market. Initial versions were called the “Flyin-Saucer” and “Pluto Platter” to capitalize on the public’s fascination at the time with UFO sightings. In 1957, Morrison sold the rights to his disc to toy company Wham-O and shortly thereafter, Wham-O rebranded the toy as the “Frisbee,” both honoring and misspelling the company name on the pie plate that had been the toy’s first incarnation.
Today, paintball is a game with numerous incarnations (including organized leagues) where players try to avoid being struck and marked with a “paintball”, a shell containing dye, while using their paintball guns to try to mark members of the opposite team. However, the original paintballs and paintball guns were developed by Nelson Paint Company in the mid 1960s for use in forestry and surveying operations. Woodsmen would use the paintballs to easily mark trees and boundaries in hard-to-reach areas.
By the late 1960s paintballs were being used for yet another non-game purpose: marking livestock. Biologists and gamekeepers quickly hopped on board with the marking technology, using the paintballs to differentiate and track animals in a minimally invasive fashion. It would take until 1981 for people to turn the paintball guns on each other in the first organized paintball game on record, spawning a new industry of guns designed for gamers and paintballs designed to mark human targets, as well as rules, leagues, and game strategy. While the gear has evolved, with innovations in compressed air guns and eco-friendly, biodegradable paintballs, paintballs and paintball guns owe their origins to the forestry and farming industries, where they are still in use for some applications today.
6. Magna Doodle
The mechanism underlying Magna Doodle, a magnetic drawing toy that allows the user to endlessly draw and erase images, is fascinating: underneath the screen is a liquid covering dark iron filings, which only rise to the surface and become visible when the magnetic pen draws them up. The toy has been a huge hit, with over 80 million Magna Doodles sold and estimates that almost half of US households with a kid under seven own one.
What’s even more interesting, however, is that Magna Doodle was originally designed as a business tool. Magna Doodle was invented in 1974 by a team of engineers working for the Pilot Pen Company in Japan. It was conceived as a “dustless chalkboard,” which could be used in sterile environments without scattering chalk dust on the writer or the surroundings. It was only after a visiting colleague from the Takara Toy Company saw Pilot’s prototype of this new technology and asked if he could place an order for the “toy”, that the company realized the novelty potential of their device. They quickly figured out how to make the product on a larger scale at a cheaper price in order to market it as a toy. With partners including Tyco, Mattel’s Fisher-Price, and now Ohio Art Company (maker of Etch a Sketch), Pilot launched Magna Doodle to a much wider audience as a toy than it ever would have reached through the corporate boardrooms and laboratories that were its original target market.
5. Water Balloons
“Trench foot,” the name given to the pain and swelling seen in the feet of soldiers exposed to the cold and damp of WWI’s European trenches, was a nasty condition, leading to over 75,000 British casualties and poor morale amongst the troops. In the worst cases, gangrene set in and amputation was required. It was this problem that inventor Edgar Ellington sought to tackle by creating a waterproof sock.
Ellington initially covered a regular sock with latex, but it was too difficult to get it on the foot. To increase elasticity, Ellington heated the sock, a method that initially appeared to be successful. However, Ellington wanted to make sure that the latex stayed intact when it was removed, so he filled it with water, and…failure. Water squirted out the side and Ellington slammed his creation to the table in frustration. It immediately, and satisfyingly, burst. Ellington immediately realized that his invention had more value as a children’s toy than a soldier’s garment and quickly brought his “water grenades” to market. The product’s name, a nod to the product’s surprising military origins, would eventually be changed to the gentler-sounding “water balloons.”
The kaleidoscope, a cylinder containing multiple angled mirrors and loose pieces of colored glass or beads, produces beautiful patterns for the viewer when it is held up to the light. Millions of children (and adults) have been captivated by the symmetry and beauty of the designs created by the interplay of mirrors, light, and the colors contained within the kaleidoscope. Few, though, understand the optical principles that underlie the kaleidoscope’s inner workings.
One who certainly had a command of the science behind the kaleidoscope was its inventor, Sir David Brewster, who coined the device’s name from the Greek works for “beautiful,” “a form,” and “to see.” Brewster was a former child prodigy, who had begun university at the age of 12 and completed a doctorate by 26. Brewster created the kaleidoscope for a series of experiments he conducted in 1814 to study the polarization of light. After noticing the brilliant tints and patterns produced when metal plates were exposed to light and reflected through several mirrors, Brewster became fixated on perfecting the symmetry and beauty of the patterns produced for the viewer, eventually realizing that loose colored glass would produce the most dramatic variations.
Having perfected the kaleidoscope, Brewster acknowledged that his device would transcend its origins as a scientific study tool, as well as its applications for ornamental design, and become, in his words, “a popular instrument for the purposes of rational amusement.” However, while Brewster was a scientific genius, patent law was not his forte. Unfortunately, aided by a faulty patent, cheap knockoff versions of his invention flooded the market, and while Brewster’s lab experiments created the kaleidoscope, he profited only minimally from its mass market success as a toy.
3. Silly Putty
Silly Putty’s origins came out of something that was anything but silly: America’s rationing during WWII. Rubber was desperately needed for numerous wartime applications including tires, aircraft components, and soldiers’ boots. However, the Japanese had attacked many rubber-producing countries in Asia at the war’s outset and the global rubber supply chain was disrupted; this crucial material became scarce. American civilians were asked to pitch in by giving old tires, rubber boats, and raincoats to aid the war effort. The government also asked US companies to do their part and to try to invent a synthetic rubber that would mimic the real thing and improve the Allies’ rubber supply.
Credit for the invention of Silly Putty is disputed, claimed by two men who were working to create synthetic rubber to address this wartime shortage: Earl Warrick of Dow Corning and James Wright of General Electric. Working independently on crafting a rubber substitute, the men discovered that combining boric acid and silicone oil produced a bouncy, elastic putty with a high melting temperature. Unfortunately, while this bouncing putty entertained the lab workers, it wasn’t the viable rubber substitute needed for the war effort. Wright sent samples to scientists around the world to see if they could find a practical purpose for this new substance, but no one could. By 1949, the putty had found its way to a toy store owner, who passed it on to Peter Hodgson, a marketing consultant who saw its potential as a novelty item and borrowed money to produce a batch, which he packaged into plastic eggs. After the Hodgson’s “Silly Putty,” as he dubbed it, was mentioned in the New Yorker, he received 250,000 orders in 3 days. Today, almost six million Silly Putty eggs are sold annually, a pretty impressive result for a toy that started out as a failed rubber substitute.
2. Super Soaker
Lonnie Johnson’s resume doesn’t exactly scream “toy inventor.” He earned a BS in Mechanical Engineering and an MS in Nuclear Engineering from Tuskegee University and spent his early career working on the US Air Force’s stealth bomber program and as a systems engineer for NASA missions studying Jupiter, Mars, and Saturn. So how does an actual rocket scientist with more than 80 patents to his name invent the “Super Soaker,” a high-powered squirt gun that would become one of America’s consistently best-selling toys? By accident!
In 1982, Johnson was working to develop a new kind of heat pump for AC units and refrigerators that relied on water instead of Freon as a working fluid. While experimenting at home in his bathroom, he shot a stream of water across the bathroom and into the tub. Realizing it would make a great squirt gun, Johnson created a prototype using Plexiglass, PVC pipe, and a 2-liter soda bottle. While it would take Johnson 7 years to convince a toy manufacturer to partner with him to bring the Super Soaker to market, the Super Soaker brand has since brought in almost $1 billion in sales, including tens of millions for its unlikely inventor.
If the future of a struggling Cincinnati soap company hadn’t once looked so grim, the world might never have known Play-Doh, a pliable modeling compound which has sold billions of cans since its 1955 debut as a children’s craft product. Luckily for millions of kids around the world, history turned out as it did. After WWII, Kutol Products, an Ohio cleaning product company, fell on rough times. The company had specialized in a doughy cleaning mixture that helped homemakers remove soot stains (from coal furnaces) from wallpaper. However, the product was lagging after a one-two punch of innovations left their target market drastically reduced: clean-burning conversion furnaces (oil or gas powered) and easy-to-clean vinyl wallpaper.
However, based on her own experience, the sister-in-law of Kutol’s owner, a nursery school owner, provided an unexpected alternate use for the product: a craft modeling compound for kids. The wallpaper cleaner was non-toxic, reusable, easy to manipulate even in little hands, and didn’t leave any marks..
After adding the signature scent, removing the detergents, and adding color, Play-Doh was launched in local schools. After being featured on Captain Kangaroo, Play-Doh became such a hit across the US that the once-failing Kutol Products Company had to scramble to keep up with demand. The company’s owners were thrilled that wallpaper cleaner that they had struggled to sell at 34 cents a can was suddenly backordered at $1.50 a can. They worked to perfect and patent the recipe for Play-Doh, 700 million pounds of which have been played with by delighted children since the product discarded its original incarnation.