January 17, 2008 6:37 PM   Subscribe

I come to praise Wham-O, not bury it. Despite the recent death of Wham-O cofounder Richard Knerr, coming a half-decade after the death of hos partner Arthur "Spud" Melin, let us not mourn. Instead, let us remember what Wham-O gave the world.

In 1957, they created the Hula Hoop, a simple toy with ancient origins that proved easy to learn but hard to master. The origins of this toy were fictionalized by the Coen Brothers for their film The Hudsucker Proxy.

In 1959, they again achieved mass success, this time with the Frisbee, a toy that has inspired both a sport and a closer bond between man and dog.

Another Wham-O product? The SuperBall, created from the near magic Polybutadiene, subject of obsessive collecting, science experiments, and sadistic pranks.

Of course, not all their products would enter the pantheon of pop culture immortals. There was the Wham-O limbo kit, for kids who wanted to see how low they could go. They made a Magic Window of "microdium crystals," because, presumably, even little children like to get high and stare at things. For adventurous children, they made Wheelie Bars, and for kids who feared lit candles they made Air Blasters. For lonely kids, there was the Bubble Thing, which apparently attracted friends. Your child like weapons? There were blow guns, crossbows, and boomerangs.

They also brought us Silly String (which has become an important defensive weapon), Super Elastic Bubble Plastic, the Hacky Sack, and the Slip 'n Slide.

Sadly, for a company that brought the world so much joy, they did not have much luck with Instant Fish.
posted by Astro Zombie (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
The noble Astro Zombie hath told you Wham-O was ambitious... and grievously hath Wham-O answered it. For Astro Zombie is an honorable man...
posted by backseatpilot at 6:55 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

You know, for kids!
posted by InnocentBystander at 6:56 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]


posted by hal9k at 6:56 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Cry Havoc and let slip....Oh lord, I've got nothing.

posted by jquinby at 7:16 PM on January 17, 2008

So, let's see. The hoop, the disc, and the ball.

Is there some other more fundamental shape that these guys could steal/patent?
posted by Balisong at 7:22 PM on January 17, 2008 [2 favorites]

Is there some other more fundamental shape that these guys could steal/patent?

Well, they did start with a slingshot (used to shoot meat in the air for training falcons-how cool is that!), so they've got "Y" covered too.
posted by TedW at 7:26 PM on January 17, 2008

this is a great post. I'd stake my pulitzer on it!
posted by moxiedoll at 7:35 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

Some Superballs were colored in a psychedelic pastiche, but if my memory is correct the very first Superballs were actually a dull army-man green.

When I was a kid in the 70's my friend Jeff Davenport gave me a genuine vintage green Superball. I set up camp in our den, and would sit on the floor and bounce the ball off the cement wall adjacent to the fireplace. It would rebound onto mottled linoleum tile and back into my hand, stylistically similar to Steve McQueen's baseball pitch in The Great Escape.

In retrospect, it all becomes clear, as today we would see this as symptomatic of an "anxiety disorder", the compulsive need to discharge physical energy for non-productive reasons. But at the time it seemed almost meditative, a numinous augmentation to watching Hogan's Heroes, In Search of, Star Trek, or frankly most anything but PBS.

Sometimes a spider would lurch out of the fireplace and into my playing field. This would turn the excitement level to eleven, as the only possible action would be to nail it with the Superball. And a number of times I did. The result would be a small brown patch, less than the size of a dime, plastered onto the white cement. This then became a meta-game; to see if my father would notice the small brown patches, slowly growing in number. He never did, or at least he never said he did...

Then one day everything changed. The dull army-man green superball, which had given me so many hours of pure unadulterated kinesthetic joy, was suddenly set asunder. Yes, it simply split down the middle in what structural engineers call a "catastrophic failure". No warnings were given, no hints of pending demise. The years languishing in Jeff Davenport's basement combined with the thousands of bounces off white cement and yellow linoleum finally rent the mighty bonds of the vulcanized butadiene ball.

I should like to offer a denouement to this story, perhaps a forlorn backyard burial, but that would going too far. I think I threw the thing away and just grew up a little...
posted by Tube at 7:47 PM on January 17, 2008 [4 favorites]

Many of these products, especially the Frisbee, have provided me with endless hours of entertainment. I love this company. RIP Mr. Knerr.
posted by caddis at 7:50 PM on January 17, 2008

I believe either Mr. Knerr or Mr. Melin was the founder of The Church of Frisbeetarianism. You know, the belief that when you die, your soul goes up on the roof and gets stuck. (stolen proudly from George Carlin)
posted by wendell at 7:56 PM on January 17, 2008

They also gave us the Lawn Dart, easily the most dangerous toy I've ever seen.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:12 PM on January 17, 2008

The first superballs were charcoal gray. I remember when they came out. Those were cool!
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 8:13 PM on January 17, 2008

I wish people would stop spreading the false dichotomy about praising and burying. You can love something and still murder it, eat bits off it, burn the evidence and bury it in the backyard.

Wait a minute... what am I talking about? Did someone replace my Folgers Crystals with Millions of Microdium Crystals? Wham-O, you rascals!
posted by stavrogin at 8:19 PM on January 17, 2008

The first superballs were charcoal gray.

Well, as I say, I was going on memory, but after checking Mr. Zombie's link and clicking on "1965 Wham-O Originals", we see two multi colored balls, a red one, and a "blue" one. I had the "blue" one.

posted by Tube at 8:46 PM on January 17, 2008

The year before I went to the public highschool in my town, the senior prank involved dumping thousands of superballs into the student center during lunch.

Now, this student center was a full acre, indoors, with atleast a 30 foot high ceiling. Since it was during lunch, around a thousand students were in there. By the time my friends came out of their class rooms, the tables had been flipped over and the entire area became a bouncy ball war zone. People were skirmishing and throwing the balls as hard as they could across the room, pushing the tables as their shields.

Eventually they brought in the school buses (with a student body reaching 3k, they weren't going to let everyone free in the neighborhood) and got everyone home, as the fire alarms were going off, the security couldn't contain it, and one kid ended up losing an eye.

Oh it was chaos. And during my years there the senior pranks were weak and pointless by comparison.
posted by mrzarquon at 9:07 PM on January 17, 2008

The engineer who created the Magic Window has begun making them on his own. Unfortunately, the result is a rectangle, rather than the pleasing, roll-suggesting oval. Additionally, it comes with razor sharp aluminum edges. Not really for your kids, unless you'd like a patriot thing: blood red in addition to the blue and white sand.
posted by adipocere at 9:08 PM on January 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

They also gave us the Lawn Dart, easily the most dangerous toy I've ever seen.

Our lawn darts (Jarts) were made by Regent (box picture). Did Wham-O really invent them? I'm looking for a reference to no avail.
posted by F Mackenzie at 9:23 PM on January 17, 2008

I never mastered the slip 'n' slide. I admit this now. I couldn't slide into home plate, either. I can do a good dead faint, though!! *sigh*
posted by Ambrosia Voyeur at 9:37 PM on January 17, 2008

Slip-n-Slide was but an imitation, warm-weather way to do the body slide on ice, which I invented on the school playground, one day. But that's not to otherwise detract from Wham-O!

Superballs: One of the more fun afternoons in my childhood involved a bag of small Superballs my sister bought. We had been to the town pool, and then to the bank (where my mother worked) to wait for a ride home. We spent the time in the bank basement, where there was a huge room with cinderblock walls and terrazzo floors, and nothing breakable! I must have been about 8 at the time. We proceeded to discover how balls bounce when given a spin. Chaos paid a call, and much much laughter.

Frisbee: Venerable, wonderful, and thanks for inspiring the Aerobie!
posted by Goofyy at 10:04 PM on January 17, 2008

Metafilter is just not going to be the same place after the writer's strike is resolved...
posted by tgyg at 10:48 PM on January 17, 2008

We had one with the names of the planets.
I guess it was a Pluto Platter. (Back when Pluto was a planet)
posted by MtDewd at 11:37 PM on January 17, 2008

A friend of mine, in college, somehow built a compressed-air Superball machine gun.

And then tested it inside the garage.

To this day, among his group of friends, "Superball machine gun" is slang for "really astonishingly bad idea".
posted by Pallas Athena at 12:25 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

The first superballs were charcoal gray.

My very first crime, at the age of 10, was shoplifting one of these Superballs. I wanted one so desperately that I planned my crime like a pro. After carefully studying a road map, when my parents thought I was playing in the street, I walked the two and a half miles into the city centre, snagged one from a department store, and then walked the two and a half miles home. I was mortified a day or two later when the damn thing hit a pothole in the road and a great big chunk tore off. The damn thing never bounced properly again.
posted by PeterMcDermott at 2:23 AM on January 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

If it helps any, you weren't alone. The first generation of superballs caused ecstasy-agony moments for kids from all over as they bounced astonishingly, impossibly high and then hours or at most a couple of days later fragmented into chunks.
posted by jfuller at 3:40 AM on January 18, 2008

So many Frisbees. One Frisbee-eating roof. Ah, childhood.

posted by Thorzdad at 4:40 AM on January 18, 2008

Yeah, didn't Wham-O give us the lawn darts? That was pure genius.
posted by spirit72 at 5:27 AM on January 18, 2008

When I was a wee lad I lost a Superball. Then at the tender age of 6 my eyesight was a far bit better than it is today so I could swear I knew EXACTLY where that ball landed. So even until this day 42 years later whenever I pass that patch of grass near the telephone pole on the corner of Peter's Park I kick the dirt around a bit hoping...hoping

I still own a set of Lawn Darts, and only recently sold an AirBlaster.
posted by Gungho at 6:02 AM on January 18, 2008

Wow, I think I've played with every single Wham-O product over the years. The Superball was a particular favorite in grammar school, even though many of them got lost on the school's roof. And of course they were eventually banned just because a couple of kids got hurt when hit with one. Spaldeens were still allowed, though.
posted by tommasz at 7:10 AM on January 18, 2008

On another related subject...it has been reported that a prized boomerang that was stolen from a museum in Australia has been returned after 15 years.
posted by doctorschlock at 7:11 AM on January 18, 2008

They also gave us the Lawn Dart, easily the most dangerous toy I've ever seen.

posted by box at 8:37 AM on January 18, 2008

Man, I love me some superballs.
posted by infidelpants at 10:39 AM on January 18, 2008

Wham-o was the maker of some my favorite toys when I was a kid; lawn darts, superballs, frisbee, air blaster, silly string. And even one when I was older; hacky sack. Good times...
posted by ObscureReferenceMan at 11:59 AM on January 18, 2008

While we've all left this topic for newer posts (obligatory "." BTW), I've still been fascinated by the lawn dart references, so I did some digging. Just for the sake of some future archive, I'd like to go on the record as disputing any claim that Wham-O invented lawn darts (although I love and adore the 60s and 70s Wham-O toys of my youth).

Yes, Wham-O sells "Air Darts" and has a patent for that particular breed of dart. However, what most of us remember as lawn darts were popularized by Regent Sports Corporation's Jarts. Hasbro and Franklin introduced their own flavors, but Regent was the biggest name and (as I recall) the most popular product.

Here are pictures of lawn dart sets from the 60s and 70s. For anyone who played the game back before the 1988 ban, it's a bit of nostalgia. Not quite the hoola-hoop, frisbee or superball... but a good fad for its time.

(I'm still trying to find more information on Lawrence Barnett, who holds the early-60s patent on the original Jart--- please post if you know anything.)
posted by F Mackenzie at 7:17 PM on January 18, 2008

What I remember most about the SuperBall was not so much a catastrophic-failure-breaking-in-half, but that playing with one on rough concrete or, even worse, blacktop paved surfaces took little scrapes and scuffs off the ball constantly. After one reasonable play session, it was no longer smooth and after several, it began to become misshapen, adding a certain randomness to its bounce, which was alternately awesome and 'protect your own balls' scary.
posted by wendell at 9:31 PM on January 18, 2008

I just revisited this post, having meant to read it earlier. I still have a "Magic WIndow" - I got it while in the hospital as a very young child. It mesmerised me then as well as now.
posted by not_on_display at 10:52 AM on January 21, 2008

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