In Praise of Wham-O

Sure, they were for kids. But every now and then, at the backyard summer picnics of the '60s, Dad would man the grill and Mom would pick up the Hula Hoop and give it a whirl. If you paid close attention, you could see Dad's face change, his mind racing back to the Time Before Children. He saw Mom again the way she was when he fell in love with her. And it was good.

The invention of the Hula Hoop is arguably more responsible for the sexual revolution than just about anything else, because prior to then American women had never quite moved ... their … hips ... like that in public before. It was all over once those things started showing up in cul-de-sacs across the country.

The man who helped make that suburban magic possible died this week. He was Richard (Rich) Knerr, cofounder of the company Wham-O, which marketed the cheap plastic ring--it originally sold for 98 cents--that became a huge craze practically overnight when it was introduced in 1958. Knerr passed on at age 82 after suffering a stroke at his California home. His business partner, Arthur (Spud) Melin, died at age 77 in 2002.

The two good friends started the company in 1948, and first made their mark selling slingshots. They coined the word "Wham-O!" as the sound a slingshot missile makes when it hits its target. As for the Hula Hoop, Knerr has said they got the idea for it after learning of a similar bamboo toy that was a hit with kids in Australia.

The craze twisted down just as fast as it began, but not before they sold tens of millions of hoops in just a few years. That was the problem: just about everyone bought a couple and the things lasted forever, so the pair got stuck with a huge inventory and barely made a profit before the fad died. But they learned a valuable lesson, and the business grew and grew after that. SuperBalls, Silly String, Slip 'N Slide, and the iconic Frisbee would propel the company forward over the next two decades, until Rich and Spud sold it in1982.

The Frisbee would turn out to be a very profitable invention, and they continue to sell well to this day--probably because they end up on the roof only minutes after you get them home from the store. The Frisbee began at the beach, where Melin and Knerr saw a building inspector named Fred Morrison tossing around a flying disk he'd invented that he called the Pluto Platter. They bought him out in 1955, made some tweaks, and changed the name to Frisbee, in honor of a comics character. An alternative version of the name's origin says it came from Yale, where undergrads would toss around pie tins embossed with the name of a local baking company called Frisbie's.

Later followed the still-popular Slip 'N Slide in 1961, the SuperBall in 1965 and the miracle that is Silly String in 1972.

The SuperBall was famously and brilliantly parodied on "Saturday Night Live" in 1991 as the incredibly dangerous "Happy Fun Ball." In the bit, the fake "SNL" commercial announcer drones on over a seemingly endless list of dire warnings, including "Do not taunt Happy Fun Ball." He says that the ball's core "should not be touched, inhaled or looked at."

Introduced in mid-'60s, SuperBall advertisements of the day billed it as the "MOST FANTASTIC BALL EVER CREATED BY SCIENCE!" as if there were some sort of arms race with the Soviets to create high-bouncing rubber balls. It "BOUNCES almost FOREVER!" the ads screamed. The Wham-O version had "50,000 LBS OF COMPRESSED ENERGY!" Take that, Ruskies!!

What would the American childhood have been like over the last half century without these two visionaries? There can't be a person alive in the United States who hasn't at some point played with a Wham-O toy, and there's hardly a dog that hasn't caught a Frisbee in its mouth, or at least stood there patiently for several minutes while its owner hit it in the face trying. So this week, why not toss an old Frisbee up on the roof to honor Rich and Spud, the two men who almost certainly made your childhood a better one--and who might even be the reason you have a little brother.

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