Friday, December 31, 2021
Richard Thompson James was born in 1918 and graduated from the Pennsylvania State University in 1939 with a degree in mechanical engineering. Doing his bit for the war effort in 1943, James worked on a method for suspending sensitive instruments on board navy ships, using springs. One day, he accidentally dropped one and needed to chase it as it sprung its way across the floor on its own. The rest is toy industry history.
James invested in a coil-winding machine while his wife Betty came up with the name Slinky. They cranked out 400 pieces. Each was 98 coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel, two and a half inches tall in its relaxed state. Although they convinced Gimbels Department store to carry the one-dollar toy for Christmas 1945, the static Slinky impressed no one.
Once James demonstrated the toy in action, however, their entire production run sold in 90 minutes. Since then, 300 million Slinkys have sold world-wide.
Slinkys also prove popular with high school science teachers and college professors because they perfectly demonstrate the properties of waves. Astronauts on the space shuttle have even used them in zero-gravity experiments.
Like every other successful product, the philosophy seems to be if one toy is good, more is better. Slinky Dog debuted in 1952 and was quickly followed by other pull-toy characters like Slinky train Loco, Slinky worm Suzie, and Slinky Crazy Eyes. Along with Mr. Potato Head, Slinky Dog made it into the Toy Story movies beginning in 1995. Betty James agreed that Pixar’s movie version of Slinky Dog was much cuter than what they’d manufactured.
What makes a Slinky so fun to play with? Sure, you can explain how it performs tricks, flipping down stairs end-over-end as it stretches and re-forms itself with the aid of gravity. How, when dropped, a Slinky appears to levitate for a split second. How it will even walk itself across a flat surface once you get it going just right. But something about its wondrous simplicity appeals to kids and adults alike, doesn’t it? At Betty James’ insistence, Slinky has maintained its affordability. The price and size make it a perfect item to include in a Christmas shoe box or stocking.
Sadly, Richard and Betty James divorced in 1960. She took over the company. Richard joined Wycliffe Bible Translators in Bolivia, where he died at the age of 56 from a heart attack. The incredible toy he developed (it was really more of a discovery than an invention) has entertained generations. I heartily recommend the adorable “Trained Slinky Circus” bit on You Tube by Jack Kalvan if you need a laugh. HERE's the link.
The Slinky song holds the title of longest-running jingle in television advertising history. If it isn’t going through your head by now, I can help with that. “A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.”
May this column “spring” you into 2022 with joyful anticipation and hope. I know it’s been a difficult year. I also know God is still on his throne, he loves you, and nothing has caught him off guard. He’s got this. He’s got you. Happy New Year!
Tuesday, December 28, 2021
Blame their parents. Memories of my elder son naming his pet skink “Leonardo” and explaining to me how you could tell the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles (TMNT) apart by their weapons made me curious about their origin. When I first heard of them, I assumed it had to be a joke. I wasn’t wrong.
American comic book authors and artists Kevin Eastman and Peter Laird enjoy telling the story of how they sat around doodling new concepts for comics. Eastman drew a turtle with nunchucks and labelled it “Ninja Turtle.” Laird laughed with him, then drew another and added the words “Teenage Mutant.” They laughed some more. The concept seemed too ridiculous to go anywhere. (Reminds me of Amish Vampires in Space, a book that started as a joke by cover designer Jeff Gerke of Marcher Lord Press, who granted author Kerry Nietz permission to use the concept—and write it straight. The crazy genre-mashup became a thing.)
Eastman and Laird kept going with their characters, developing four of them, naming them after Italian Renaissance artists they admired (Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo di Lodovico Buonarroti Simoni—which got misspelled “Michaelanchelo” in the early comics—Raffaello Sanzio, and Donato di Niccolò di Betto Bardi). The pair proved equally imaginative in creating the turtles’ backstory. Do you know it?
A canister containing an isotope accidentally strikes an innocent bystander carrying a fishbowl. In the bowl are his pets, four baby turtles. The turtles and canister fall down a grate into the sewer below. The canister empties onto the babies, causing them to mutate. At some point they meet a mutant rat named Splinter, the former pet of an exiled ninja warrior. Splinter becomes their martial arts master and adopted father. As teenagers, the turtles naturally live on pizza.
Or something like that.
In May 1984, Eastman’s uncle Quentin loaned the pair a thousand dollars for the first print run of a forty-page, black and white comic book. Would you have done the same? Eastman and Laird had no studio, only a kitchen table and lapboards to use while seated on a couch. I suspect Uncle Quentin considered it a decent investment when the second issue brought in advance orders of 15,000 copies—five times the initial print run of the first. Their creations rapidly became a popular cultural phenomenon that forced them both to take sabbaticals from their artwork to deal with daily pressures of running a multimedia franchise. In 1990, the first Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie released, with Eastman playing a small role as the garbage man. Indigo’s website displays 357 TMNT products, from clothing to books to action figures.
If there’s a point to make, it’s that no one can accurately predict what will become popular—especially with kids. Our God-given imaginations take humans to places that boggle the mind because we were made in the image of someone far more creative still. This is why I’m convinced that eternity won’t bore us for even a second.
“No eye has seen, no ear has heard, and no mind has imagined what God has prepared for those who love him.” (I Corinthians 2:9)
Friday, December 17, 2021
|Nate concentrating on a Rubik's Cube in 1982|
Born in Romania during WWII, Ernő Rubik learned much about creativity and design from his engineer father. Rubik studied both sculpture and architecture in Budapest, then went on to teach design at the Hungarian Academy of Applied Arts and Design. Not surprisingly, he made a hobby of creating geometric models.
Using small blocks of wood and rubber bands, Rubik’s goal was to solve a structural problem of moving parts independently without the entire mechanism falling apart. Not until he’d scrambled his cube and tried to restore it did he realize he may have created a puzzle.
His students loved it.
Given his father’s experience with applying for patents, Rubik quickly did so and received one for his “Magic Cube” in 1975. Four years later, Ideal Toys released the cube with a more distinct and memorable name. Ernő Rubik became a household name as the company sold around 200 million Rubik’s Cubes by 1983. Winning several Toy of the Year awards, over 350 million have sold to date, making the Rubik’s Cube one of the bestselling toys of all time.
Ideal originally advertised the puzzle as having over three billion combinations but only one solution. Since most people could solve just one or two sides, the next hot items to hit the market were books on how to solve the Rubik’s Cube. At one point in 1981, three of the top ten bestselling books in the US fell into this category.
Then the competitions began as “Speed Cubers” came out of the woodwork. Finally, a sport for math geeks! Budapest hosted the first world championship in 1982. Minh Thai, a Vietnamese student from Los Angeles, won with a time of 22.95 seconds. Currently, the record is 3.47 seconds, held by China’s Du Yusheng, set in 2018.
With so many geniuses improving at this skill, they needed to devise new challenges, like one-handed solving, feet solving, blindfolded solving, and multiple blindfolded solving. That latter is when a contestant studies up to ten cubes, memorizes their configuration, then dons the blindfold and solves them all. The seconds spent studying the cubes are included in their time. I know. Unbelievable.
In 2020, I watched the Netflix documentary The Speedcubers, which explores the rivalry and friendship between two of the fastest speedcubers in the world, Australian Feliks Zemdegs and American Max Park. Diagnosed with autism at the age of two, Max Park developed both social and fine motor skills through cubing. I highly recommend the film.
What boggles my mind more than a Rubik’s Cube is how anyone can believe we humans don’t have a Creator. Believing the brains of these Cube-solvers merely evolved takes more faith than taking apart a Rubik’s Cube, throwing all the pieces in a bag, then shaking the bag until the cube is reassembled with all six sides correctly aligned.
No? Just me?
“For you formed my inward parts; you knitted me together in my mother's womb. I praise you, for I am fearfully and wonderfully made. Wonderful are your works; my soul knows it very well.” (Psalm 139:13-14)
Friday, December 10, 2021
I’m thinking of asking Santa for a Radio Flyer Wagon this year. That is, I might if my wish list were not already filled with books. And if I believed in Santa.
I don’t recall desiring a little red wagon as a kid, but as an adult who tires easily, I can see where a wagon might come in handy, in any color, around the yard and garden. Ever wonder who decided kids might enjoy a wagon of their own with which to let their imaginations take flight?
In 1897, Antonio Pasin was born in Venice, Italy to a cabinetmaker. At 16, he moved to New York City with dreams of operating his own business. Too young and broke, he instead found himself working endless odd jobs for low wages. Not one to give up, Pasin invested his meagre savings in woodworking tools and a one-room rented workshop. He married a fellow Italian immigrant named Anna. They eventually moved to Chicago with two daughters and one son.
Pasin used a little homemade wooden wagon to carry around the tools he used for making phonograph cabinets. When customers began requesting duplicates of his wagon more than his cabinets, he began building toy wagons and selling them to area shops in 1917. By 1923, he’d formed the Liberty Coaster Company. Demand kept growing for the “Liberty Coasters.”
“I enter so many ventures with more nerve than capital,” Pasin said. In 1927, he tore a page from the auto industry’s book and began mass-producing stamped steel wagons. This move made the wagons affordable for nearly every child. Painted red, the wagons sold for three dollars each, about $50 in today’s economy (although a quick look on Amazon shows me a Canadian price of $170 for the classic wagon).
Pasin was a long-time fan of two other inventors: Guglielmo Marconi, credited with inventing the radio, and Charles Lindbergh, who completed the first non-stop cross-Atlantic flight in 1927. In tribute, Pasin renamed his wagon “Radio Flyer.” His company became the Radio Steel and Manufacturing company. Even during the Great Depression, 1500 wagons a day rolled off assembly lines, earning Pasin the nickname “Little Ford.”
“To give work to others,” Pasin said. “That had something to do with my desire to be in business.”
During World War II, production of wagons stopped while the company produced five gallon “Blitz cans” (now known as jerrycans) for the U.S. army. Once the war ended, the company returned to producing the little wagons that have continued to enjoy much popularity for their high quality, nostalgia, and practical usefulness. So popular, in fact, that in 1987 Radio Steel changed its name to Radio Flyer. By this time, Antonio’s son had taken over.
Since 1997, Antonio Pasin’s grandson, Robert, has been CEO. The company has grown to include tricycles, scooters, and more. Though they also began making plastic wagons, the metal ones remain the most popular. In 1999, the Radio Flyer Wagon was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
Antonio died in 1990 and was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2003. His little red wagon has shown up in movies and never fails to add nostalgia to any scene in which it appears.
For a heart-warming video that tells Antonio’s story, click here. What moved me most was his desire, having known poverty himself, to provide wagons for as many children and jobs for as many adults as possible.
“Whoever is generous to the poor lends to the Lord, and he will repay him for his deed.” Proverbs 19:17.
Friday, December 3, 2021
Barbara Millicent Roberts was born March 9, 1959, two weeks after me. Though she appeared about eighteen years my senior at the time, she has somehow managed to maintain her youth and still doesn’t look a day over 23.
Plastic will do that.
Prior to Barbie’s debut, most dolls represented babies—designed for children to cuddle and care for like real infants. Married to the co-founder of the Mattel Toy company, Ruth Handler probably kept a lookout for new toy ideas. When she noticed her daughter, Barbara, assigning her paper dolls adult roles, it sparked the idea for a teenage fashion doll. The concept did not impress Mr. Handler or his board.
His wife persisted. Mattel introduced the first Barbie doll, named for the Handlers’ daughter, at the 1959 American International Toy Fair in NYC. The first year, Mattel sold 350,000 of the 11.5-inch dolls.
By the time I became interested in Barbie, her empire had exploded. Alas, I never actually owned one. I’m not sure whether my parents didn’t buy into the hype or if they took issue with Barbie’s impossible body shape, but they chose to give me a “Tammy” doll instead—12 inches tall and shaped more like an average teenager. I didn’t mind until I realized Tammy couldn’t fit any of Barbie’s clothes. Her flat feet called for nothing but simple rubber sneakers. Though my mother sewed some brilliant outfits for Tammy, I still craved a “real” Barbie of my own. (Ungrateful little snot!)
Over the years, more friends joined Barbie, including her boyfriend, Ken (named for the Handlers’ son), her best friend, Midge, and little sister, Skipper. One could purchase every conceivable outfit and accessory, as well as homes, cars, boats, and more for the popular doll.
In her 62-year existence, Barbie has managed over 150 careers. As an astronaut, she reached the moon in 1965, four years ahead of Neil Armstrong. She’s run for U.S. president numerous times. Although she’s clearly never won, I wonder how many ballots she’s spoiled as a write-in candidate? She’s even been a mermaid.
Her original body shape became the topic of much criticism when someone calculated that a similarly proportioned human woman would stand five feet, nine inches tall and be severely underweight. (In 1965, Barbie came with a fuzzy pink bathroom scale permanently set to 110 pounds.) Concurring that Barbie’s shape might contribute to an unhealthy body image in children, Mattel increased her waist size in 1997.
Barbie continued to evolve with the times, fashions, and political correctness. In 2014 she made the cover of Sports Illustrated in her original black and white swimsuit. Meanwhile, her friend “Ella” underwent cancer treatments as Mattel distributed bald dolls to hospitals in limited numbers.
Mattel reinvented Barbie again in 2016, responding to public pressure that she did not reflect diversity of modern women. Barbie now comes in 22 skin tones, 94 hair colors, 13 eye colors and five body types. I suspect this move profited Mattel, given all the new sizes of clothing needed to go with the various dolls. Still, good for them.
Barbie has appeared in books, films, and video games. She has her own TV show, You Tube channel, and vlog. Streets have been named for her, painters and photographers have captured her, the wealthy have collected her. If you’re ever in Taiwan, you can even visit a Barbie Café.
A quick look at Amazon tells me you can order a doll for as little as five Canadian dollars, or for up to sixty for this years’ “Holiday Barbie” in all her sparkly glory.
As for me, I’ll thank God for the four or five “careers” I’ve learned, my closet filled with previously owned clothing, and a 1959 body that still mostly works.
“Charm is deceptive, and beauty does not last; but a woman who fears the Lord will be greatly praised.” Proverbs 31:30