CAN YOU INVENT A MILLION-DOLLAR FAD?

by Wesley S. Griswold




POPULAR SCIENCE   JANUARY 1966   pp78-81, 210


( OCR'ed by Rick Furr - - Thank You! )


A California firm isn't kidding when it invites you to send them your ideas for fun and games.  They've made millions on fads--from Hula Hoops to bubbles


Here's a firm whose president may suddenly start bouncing spectacularly lively rubber balls for the chief of research and development to catch -- if he can.  And the executive vice-president thinks nothing of firing a blast of air from a formidable-looking plastic gun at his busy and unsuspecting secretary.


That's the Wham-O Mfg. Co. of San Gabriel, Calif., where anybody's idea of an amazing toy, or a novel product of almost any sort has a chance to become a reality and be sold by the millions.


"Tell your readers that if they have an idea - - no matter how nutty - - to send it to us"


Fun is their business, and they're as interested in your idea of fun as in their own.  Mail, phone, telegraph, or carry it to their threshold on El Monte St., and you will receive a warm welcome.  In fact, the welcome may eventually be followed by royalties.  That has been the happy fate of quite a few inventors to date.  They've included house painters, brickyard workers, school kids, bank presidents, aircraft engineers, retired clerks, and upholsterers -- to name just a few.


Though you may never have heard of Wham-O before, you doubtless are already acquainted with Super Ball, their latest sensation.  It's about the size of a handball, and has such extraordinary bounce, that it makes every other ball seem tired.  It falls just short of perpetual motion.  Kids from seven to 70 can be seen dribbling it or whamming it over the rooftops almost anywhere you go these days.


Or maybe you've frustrated your youngsters by appropriating their Frisbee Flying Saucer and coltishly skimming it over the lawn.  Or, at the very least, you used to sheepishly sashay around inside a Hula Hoop.


Those outstanding fun fads all stemmed from the Wham-O Mfg. Co., which turned them out by the tens of millions.  But the ideas for all three came from outsiders.




The high-bouncer.  Super Ball, for instance, was the inspiration of a chemist, Norman Stingley, who worked for another firm -- and still does, though he picks up fat royalty checks regularly.


"It took us nearly two years to iron the kinks out of Super Ball before we produced it," said Richard Knerr, 40, president of Wham-O.  "It always had that marvelous springiness -- a 92-percent recovery rate -- far beyond that of any other ball.  But it had a tendency to fly apart.  We've licked that with a very-high-pressure technique for forming it.  Now we're selling millions."  Stingley is said to receive a royalty of around a cent on each.


The Frisbee Flying Saucer was the inspiration of a building inspector, a former Air Force pilot.  It's just a shallow plastic saucer with an airfoil edge that will boomerang or sail and hover, depending on how you skim it.  The Frisbee Flying Saucer still sells by the millions, Knerr reports, and the building inspector continues to reap a golden harvest.  The name Frisbee is not his; it is the name of an old game played by skimming paper plates.


The celebrated Hula Hoop, which has a special niche in toyland's hall of fame, was suggested to Knerr and his partner, Arthur ("Spud") Melin, by a friend in Australia. Down Under, it was used as an exercise hoop in gym classes.  But Wham-O embellished it, gave it a name suggested by the gyrations of the person twirling it around his body, tried it out on a few children in Pasadena, and the rest is history.


"It became a worldwide fad," recalls Knerr, "and we soon had plants turning it out in seven countries.  We still sell millions of them."


"There was a mechanical principle involved in the Hula Hoop," he continued, "on which, after five years of work, we obtained a patent.  To illustrate: If you put a little ring on a finger and try to twirl it, you'll have a hard time.  But put on a ring eight inches in diameter, say, and twirling it becomes as easy as pie.  With the Hula Hoop, it's the ratio of waist diameter to hoop diameter that's important.  Small hoops just won't work -- or big waists, for that matter."




Shot into business.  The Wham-O firm came into existence in a manner as offbeat as its subsequent success.


Dick Knerr and Spud Melin have been friends since childhood.  In 1948, at the University of Southern California, their hobby was raising falcons and training them to hunt.  To teach the birds to dive at prey, they hurled small meatballs at them while they were on the wing.  They used a slingshot, and one day, when they tried to interest a prospect in buying a falcon, he said, "I don't want a bird, but I'd sure like a slingshot like that."


Never slow to recognize a potentially profitable idea, Knerr and Melin bought a handsaw for $7 down and started producing slingshots in Knerr's garage.


"We called them Wham-O slingshots," said Knerr, "because -- well, that's the sensation you felt when you hit something with one of them.


"Spud would cut 'em, I'd sand 'em, and that's the way the business started," he continued.  "Spud would go out one way and sell 'em, and I'd go out another.  We ran some mail-order advertising, began lining up dealers, and first thing we knew, we were taking orders from sporting-goods dealers all over the United States."


Business became so good that the boys moved out of the Knerr garage into one corner of an abandoned grocery store.  They started producing throwing knives, fencing foils, and boomerangs in addition to slingshots.  Soon they took over the entire store, and a factory besides.


The Frisbee Flying Saucer was their first really big hit, and after that they were obliged to build a plant of their own, in San Gabriel, and start subcontracting their burgeoning production as well.


Knerr and Melin (the firm's shorter, slimmer, somewhat pixyish executive vice-president) are Wham-O's principal owners.  They also make the final decision on whether or not to put an idea into production.




You're invited.  "One of our main endeavors is persuading people to send us ideas," Knerr said.  "We get thousands of them, from all over the world.  And we look at them all -- every one.  Of course, we hear from our share of crackpots -- guys with little black boxes who say they can move mountains, or pedal up among the satellites if we'll only supply the oxygen.  But I wish you'd tell your readers that if they have an idea -- no matter how nutty it seems to them -- to send it to us.  Maybe we've got an application for it.  We don't just make toys, you know, even though they're our principal line.  We're branching out in a lot of ways, even into housewares and cosmetics."


"Who does the initial screening of this flood of suggestions?"  I asked.


"Ed Headrick -- he's in charge of research and development."


Headrick says, "We average 20 new ideas in the mail every day.  If there's any publicity about us, the number shoots up to 50 or 100 or 150.  Too many people, though, think we'd be interested in reviving some toy they used to play with as kids.  That's not true.  We want the new and different."


"What's the percentage of good ideas in a carload?"  I asked.


"Well," said Headrick, "we have to review, say, 100 just to find one that even has interest.  We have to look at 1,000 before we turn up one that seems worth the cost of testing.  We have to run through 50 to 100 tests of different ideas before we come up with something as good as Super Ball.  And all the time, of course, we're developing ideas of our own -- the whole company is attuned to that."




Keeping it bouncing.  "Speaking of Super Ball," I said, "I note that you say it's 'made of new, amazing Zectron.'  What's that?"


It's a secret mixture of man-made materials,'' Headrick told me, "but the name Zectron doesn't mean a thing -- it just sounds zingy, and Super Ball is certainly that."


"Have you ever had a flop?"  I asked Knerr.


"Oh, sure," he said.  "We're not perfect.  Take Instant Fish, for example.  We had the idea of marketing fish eggs that would hatch before the astonished eyes of people who bought then and put them in bowls of water.  We're always seeking what we call 'the magical degree of amazement' in our products.  We want people to exclaim, 'What was that?' or 'Gee, I never saw anything like that before.' And we want to appeal to all ages and both sexes."


"What was wrong with Instant Fish?"  I asked.


"Oh, we got a ton of orders, and then found that the fish had let us down.  They just wouldn't lay eggs fast enough to make the project profitable."




< Picture1 - Kneer & Melin >

All smiles over the success of the multimilllion-dollar business they've built out of fun and games, Richard P. Knerr (left) and A. K. Melin clown among some hit products in their San Gabriel, Calif., office.


< Picture2 - Monster Bubbles >

Ever dodge a balloon-size soap bubble drifting by?  It had probably floated away from generators like these.  The youngsters are playing with Monster Bubble sets, an idea bred in Wham-O's factory.


< Picture 3 - Super Ball (Lady) >

If fun is your business, illustrating it with gag shots comes natural.  This gal supposedly needs the hard hat to survive a shower of Super Balls, a spectacularly bouncy item set in motion by Wham-O.


< Picture 4 - Slip'n Slide >

Slip'n Slide gets a try out by a young enthusiast.  Like many of Wham-O's best-sellers, this slippery product grew from an outsider's idea.  A young upholsterer is now getting royalties on this one.


< Picture 5 - Hula Hoop >

Famous Hula Hoop of a few years ago was the first Wham-O product to become an international sensation, selling in the millions.  It worked best if diameter of your waist was small compared to the hoop's.


< Picture 6 - Limbo >

Limbering up with Limbo, acrobatic gals try their skill at a South American game Wham-O built into a fad with plastic apparatus.  Point is to keep lowering bar and still slither under it, leaning backward.


< Picture 7 - WaterWiggle >

A wildly leaping shower with a face painted on the head -- that's Water Wiggle.  You attach a slim tubing of flexible plastic to your garden hose, and water pressure, whipping the leering "head" to and fro, whips up excitement, too.  Wham-O finds it a "cool" summer seller.


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Special thanks to Rick Furr for his contributions !


Super Ball is a brand name and registered trademark of Wham-O Incorporated, San Francisco, CA
Zectron is a registered trademark of Wham-O Manufacturing Company, San Francisco, CA
Wham-O is a registered trademark of Wham-O Incorporated, San Francisco, CA

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