The Toys That Built America (2021) s01e01 Episode Script

Masters of Invention

1 They walk downstairs.
Slimy? No, that's not it.
They bounce, they stretch, and they spin.
A flying disc.
A walking metal coil.
Stealthy? No.
But where did they come from? And who created them? It's Slinky.
The untold stories behind America's most iconic toy innovations.
Kids want real toys.
They must have thought he was crazy.
Crazy! The visionary ideas.
Some of the best toys break some sort of rule.
It became such a craze that it caught the attention of president Johnson.
The happy accidents.
If you uncoil the slinky, suddenly it can be used as a radio antenna.
And the spectacular fails.
They're suing us.
He believed enough in it, even though he was severely in debt.
It's just a true Testament to the kind of woman that she was, fearless, determined.
We're gonna have so much fun.
In the spring of 1943, the United States is fighting a world war in Europe and the Pacific.
Most people were confident that the United States entry into the war in 1941, 1942 was tipping the balance.
But by 1943, the war seems to be turning in their favor, but it's very much up in the air.
It was not a sure thing by any stretch.
Critically important is maintaining control of the sea, where ships very vital resources to the 16 million men and women serving in the armed forces.
Back at home, millions, more work overtime in support of the war effort.
Like one mechanical engineer at a shipyard in Philadelphia, who's doing his part to try solving a problem that plagues US warships.
His name is Richard James.
He is charged with trying to come up with a way to keep sensitive instruments safe on ships while they're out at sea.
You know, what's going to keep them from falling and breaking.
And he thought that suspending that equipment by torsion Springs, which are Springs with no tension on them, he might be able to keep it functioning properly.
Richard James was full of ingenuity.
He was a guy who could not repress his creative endeavors.
He started as a kid scavenging parts and making his own toys.
So he had an entrepreneurial bent as well.
He accidentally knocks over one of the Springs and it just happened to kind of bounce and it appeared almost like it was walking.
The runaway spring will one day become an iconic American toy selling more than 300 million worldwide.
But on this day in 1943, it's up to James to figure out what to do with it.
You could practically see the light bulb go on over his head.
And he said to his wife, Betty, I think we've got a toy here.
Betty by now has been through loads of ideas that Richard churned out.
Undoubtedly, she thought, oh no, here we go again.
Apparently he brought home a lot of strange ideas to his wife.
I'm telling you Betty, it's like some kind of magic trick.
It doesn't work every time, but when it does.
There's no gain to it.
Why would children want to play with such a simple thing? Because where you see coiled wire, they'll see something that acts like it's alive and moves by itself.
He's got that inventor's mind.
He saw something that he couldn't convince other people to see yet.
It was a huge uphill battle for him.
During world war II a lot of toys were made of card or paper because essential materials like zinc, steel, rayon, were needed for the war efforts.
The Navy rejects James's idea to use coiled springs to stabilize ship equipment.
So he throws himself into his long shot creation and for two years, experiments with different types of steel wire.
There are so many variables to perfect when you're making a spring device.
There's tension, there's the kind of kinetic energy that you want to release.
Lots of physics, lots of mechanics.
He tested and tried and prototyped, eventually coming up with a Swedish blue industrial steel coiled spring with just exactly 98 coils.
It's stacks two and a half inches tall.
I've got it, come see.
With Betty finally on board, she makes a pivotal contribution.
What are we going to call it? Slimy? No, that's not it.
Stealthy? No, no that's not it.
It's slinky.
She found the word slinky and she thought it was perfect, and the rest is history.
Next, Richard and Betty take the biggest gamble of their lives.
They decided to borrow $500 and make 400 Slinky's by hiring an outside firm to make them in a model shop.
It's only the start of the challenge though.
And then to really start selling it to retailers, because this looks like no other toy out there on the market.
170 Miles away, at the General Electric labs in Connecticut, a chemical engineer works on another problem plaguing the US war effort.
We don't think of rubber when we think of waging war, but it's pretty essential.
It's a component in so many pieces of this vast military arsenal.
If we don't get rubber we'll have to stop making good tanks.
We also need rubber tires for Jeeps and planes.
Naturally occurring rubber is harvested from trees no longer accessible to the US.
Japan had invaded a lot of the rubber producing countries, sort of cut off our supply.
Because of the war effort, it becomes paramount to create a synthetic alternative to rubber.
Chemical engineer James Wright makes it his mission to come up with one.
James Wright had been born in Scotland and he was working for General Electric on various different challenges.
He mixes different chemicals with silicone oil and when he adds boric acid, it solidifies.
But instead of forming a hard rubber like substance, the compound remains soft, sticky, unlike anything Wright has ever seen.
A ball of this putty bounced if you threw it on the floor, would settle into a puddle if left alone.
You can stretch it to great lengths without it snapping.
James Wright kept showing this new goo to his coworkers, but no one could find an application for it.
They actually sent it out to a bunch of different scientists so maybe that they could figure out a way to use it.
After a while he couldn't figure out how to really use what he created and he gave up on it.
Wright has no idea this bizarre substance will help usher in a completely new market for toys, sell over 350 million pieces, and make nearly half a billion dollars for someone else.
September 2nd, 1945 and Americas joy bubbled over into unrestrained jubilation.
The period after the second world war is a moment of tremendous economic opportunity.
And as American soldiers return home, they're looking for a return to normality, to enjoy the prosperity that comes from the end of the war.
And so what you see are Americans seeking that prosperity in all kinds of areas.
Including one former Naval engineer, who's happy to leave the war behind to chase his new dream.
Richard James uses the rest of his savings, and a $500 loan, to start the James spring and wire company.
Betting everything on 400 of his one and only product, The Slinky.
Now, he must convince local toy stores to sell it.
I know, you're thinking, that looks like just an ordinary spring.
It is just an ordinary spring.
Well, that is where you're wrong.
I just need to get our plank from my car and I can show you.
Just one moment, okay? Look, kids want real toys.
Okay, here look.
Not interested.
I can't even imagine what any toy store owner or buyer would have thought when Richard James walked in trying to sell a spring.
By November, 1945, Richard James is running out of time.
The big sales time for toys is at the holidays, if you can't sell your toy during the Christmas season, you are basically washed up.
This was his make or break moment.
He talks Gimbals, one of the most popular department stores in Philadelphia, into displaying his new toy.
If Gimbals didn't sell, if the Slinky's didn't fly off the shelves, he was at the end of the line.
But as Christmas nears, not a single Slinky is sold.
You've gotta eat something.
Where are you going? Where are you going? Gimbals.
Richard James wasn't just an inventor.
Come on over, folks, and see what the amazing Slinky can do.
He was a showman and he was going to show the world that Slinky was a thing.
Mam, would you like to see what the amazing Slinky can do? Let me show you.
All you do is tip it like this.
In less than two hours James sells all 400 Slinky's, but he doesn't make a cent.
He had a problem because the Slinky's that he created were only a dollar at retail.
So there wasn't a lot of margin in there.
So Richard James needs a new plan or his new creation is worthless.
By 1947, it's been four years since General Electric engineer, James Wright, created his strange putty substance.
While GE did patent the invention, they've done nothing with it.
At the end of four years of research, it came down that there was no practical use for this bouncing putty.
But one evening, the substance makes the rounds at a GE cocktail party and an out of work copywriter takes an interest.
Peter Hodgson was an ad writer, but he was kind of between jobs, he was in debt, he was looking for his next gig.
So Peter's at this party.
He so intrigued and fascinated watching everyone play with this putty.
Look, he's been playing with this stuff for 15 minutes.
Somebody's going to get rich off this stuff, I say it might as well be us.
GE agrees to sell the rights to the putty, to Hodgson for just $147.
Ruth Fallgater owned a shop called The Block Shop in New Haven, Connecticut and she did a yearly catalog.
And in 1949, her and Peter worked together on the copy, which featured bouncing putty, but it was marketed more toward adults.
It was in a clear plastic case and it was on a page alongside a spaghetti maker.
Sales are abysmal.
Ruth said, you can take it from here because it's not selling well enough.
And that's when Peter Hodgson said, okay, I'm on my own with this.
As one partnership dissolves, another one starts.
Across the country, childhood friends, Rich Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin are looking to find their way.
They had a perfect Southern California sort of vibe around them.
The kind of attitude that, we don't know what we're going to do with our college degrees but whatever we choose, we're going to have fun doing it.
The enterprising duo dream of a business, selling and training falcons for hunting.
And the way they were going to train the falcons is, they were going to shoot meatballs in the air and watch the falcons chase after them.
But regular slingshots aren't durable or powerful enough, so they build their own version.
We're gonna have so much fun.
They were made from Southern Ash and they had strips of rubber from south America and then they hand tied leather as the pouch.
With new and improved slingshots, Rich and Spud are ready to get their Falcon training business off the ground.
Hi, what can we do for you? I'm shopping for a Falcon, but what's that thing.
It's how we teach the birds to dive for prey, and meatballs.
Can I try? Sure.
It turns out their homemade slingshots were so durable, so good, and so accurate, that people were more interested in the slingshots themselves, than the birds.
For a $7 down payment they buy a bandsaw and start making slingshots in the Knerr family garage.
So here these guys are, they're taking these slingshots and hitting targets with them.
And they sort of took that like comic book vibe and they're like, wham, the targets hit wham.
Oh! They call their Slingshot, the Wham-O Sportsman.
And in 1949, the Wham-O company is born.
One day, they will sell many of the most recognizable toys of all time and their iconic creations will be worth billions.
But for now they're not even thinking toys.
That Slingshot led to things like blow guns and boomerangs and fencing swords.
It was a little bit all over the map and it was also a pretty small demographic that would want their products.
Despite taking in $100,000 a year, Wham-O's founders reach a crossroads, continue selling to a niche market or aim higher.
They were never going to break through without thinking outside the box.
Something that would reach the consumers in a fresh way.
With the baby boom in full swing, the United States is primed for a toy revolution.
If the creative minds behind the Slingshot, Slinky, and Bouncing Putty want to be part of it, they must risk everything to capitalize or lose it all.
In April, 1950, entrepreneur Peter Hodgson is $12,000 in debt on his Bouncing Putty.
He's been marketing it to adults, but now he envisions a new approach.
He realizes Easter's around the corner, and he thinks about an egg.
Why don't we take that substance, and put it in an egg shape, and we'll sell it as a Easter toy.
And the former ad executive introduces another new idea.
Bouncing Putty was the original name, but it really deserved something better.
And one of Peter Hodgson's ingenious moments was to rebrand it.
He discovered that if you flattened it, and pressed it on a comic book, it would pull the picture right off the page, and then you could stretch the face, and then make all kinds of funny shapes.
Then a few months later, the New Yorker Magazine publishes a story about Silly Putty.
It was the kind of earned PR that every product manager dreams of in just three days.
Silly Putty sales went to 250,000 units.
In less than a year, Silly Putty becomes a blockbuster toy worldwide.
Silly Putty proves to be Peter Hodgson's ticket to the good life.
He lives a life of luxury.
He has hundreds of millions of dollars in assets.
Peter Hodgson dies in 1976, leaving an estate valued at $140 million.
The next year his company is sold to Crayola, and sales of Silly Putty ultimately reach more than 300 million units.
Kids may have been using Silly Putty in all sorts of fun ways, but adults saw some practical uses.
It was great for getting pet hair off of things or lint off your clothing or grime off your painted walls.
The Apollo 8 astronauts also used it as a way of adhering their tools from floating around the space capsule when they were in zero gravity.
This is one of those evergreen toys that just keeps on selling.
Meanwhile, by the mid 1950s, Slinky has also finally become a big moneymaker thanks to Richard James's ingenuity.
Well, after the success at Gimbels, he had to figure out a way to make these himself.
He couldn't farm it out to a machine shop.
There wasn't a lot of margin in there.
So what did he do as an engineer? He ended up designing the machines that would take 80 feet of wire, and coil at 98 times to make Slinkys.
Demand is so big, he builds six machines to keep up.
Slinky is often running, or maybe I should say often walking, and it's a good business.
The James family buys 31 acre estate in Bryn Mawr, Pennsylvania, one of the priciest neighborhoods in Philadelphia.
They've got six kids, life is good.
Outwardly, everything looks perfect, but all isn't as it appears.
In 1957, looking for their own million dollar idea, Wham-O Co-founders Rich Knerr, and Spud Melin are strolling on the beach when it finds them.
What's that? Like a miniature flying saucer.
Man, can it go.
They return the strange disc to its owner, former air force pilot, Fred Morrison.
Fred Morrison was a World War II pilot.
One day he was on the beach throwing a metal pie tin, when a beachcomber came up, and wanted to buy the tin from him.
Now it was a 5 cent cake pan tin, and he could sell it for 25 cents.
And that's when he decided I need to go into business.
Morrison, substitutes the cake pan tin for plastic, and calls it the Whirlo Way after a famous racehorse.
Then later changes it to The Flyin-Saucer.
This was around 1947 when Roswell was happening, and everything was outer space.
So he thought the flying saucer would be a good thing to call it.
After updating the design in 1954, Morrison changes the name again to the Pluto Platter.
Names of very important, and you can build a brand around a name.
Who's going to buy a Pluto Platter? Sales never do take off, but enter Rich and Spud who think they can make it a success.
Wham-O buys the manufacturing, and production rights from Morrison.
They make design modifications to increase the accuracy and distance, and look to its origins to find a new name.
So early on, people would throw metal pie tins from the Frisbies Pie Company, and they would say like in golf, "Four.
" They would yell "Frisbee!" So they decided to trademark the name, and that's how the Frisbee was born.
In the first two years, Wham-O sells more than a million disks.
They decided they're gonna go to all the college campuses, and these college kids start figuring out how to play like Frisbee football or even Frisbee golf.
Hundreds of Frisbee players have come to display their skills.
And all of these things eventually solidified Frisbee's position as the premier throwing disk.
With the Frisbee's popularity spreading, Knerr and Melin are now officially in the toy business, but nothing could prepare them for the world, for the toy Wham-O would unleash next.
It doesn't bite.
It does do something amazing thing folks.
By the late 1950s, Slinky's creator Richard James, and his wife, Betty appear to be living the American Dream.
But as sales of the Slinky begin to decline, Richard suffers a midlife crisis.
Richard isn't getting as much publicity as he craves.
He starts getting distracted.
He starts having affairs.
Richard also joins a religious organization, and start sending them large amounts of money.
He goes all in.
He's donating money left and right.
He donate so much money that he put the Slinky Company in huge debt.
Things are starting to get really tough financially.
They owe banks and steel suppliers more money than what they're taking in.
Within a few months, Richard James downward spiral takes another turn.
Honey? The Lord has called me to help spread his word to the people of South America.
I'll be leaving for Bolivia today.
What are you talking about? This is my calling.
- The Lord has- - What about the children? You'll figure it out.
As for the company, let the creditors have it, unless you wanna run it yourself.
Maybe I'll do exactly that.
At a time where women were definitely not expected to take on that kind of responsibility or even be capable of taking on that kind of responsibility, it's just a true testament to the kind of woman that she was, fearless, determined.
Betty takes out a mortgage on her home, determined to revive the Slinky brand.
She gambles everything she has on a Hail Mary.
Betty James had very, very little resources.
So what does she do? She goes out and hires musicians to write a jingle.
She knew that if she can have a catchy jingle, people would remember it, and they would remember the product brand.
Jingles in the 1960s were huge.
Absolutely huge.
You would hear them on the radio, see them on the television.
Well, these were powerful marketing tools.
Who walks the stairs without a care It shoots so high in the sky Bounce up and down just like a clown Everyone knows its Slinky But will a jingle be enough to save the company? And Betty James is sinking fortunes.
Meanwhile, after making a fortune on the Slingshot and the Frisbee, Wham-O founders Rich Knerr and Spud Melin are looking for their next big idea.
I think that Melin and Knerr didn't think they were you know, the only ones that can invent something fabulous.
And they had this amazing open door policy.
It didn't matter who you were.
If you had an idea, they were going to listen.
So this is a buddy of yours? It's his wife.
So she has something to use for exercise in Australia.
He thinks we'll get a kick out of it.
One of Melin's neighbors, Joan Anderson returned from Australia with a bamboo exercise hoop.
One of Jones' friends mentioned that the movements that she made kind of reminder of Hula dancers, and boom, the name Hula Hoop was born.
When they saw it, and how it was being used, kind of a light bulb moment went off.
They thought we can manufacture this, and we can make this into a fun toy.
They set up this handshake deal.
It was totally verbal, no paper at all.
And they said, "If the Hula Hoop becomes a hit, we'll give you royalties.
" And that's how it all started.
Before it hits shelves, Wham-O upgrades the hoop, With a new durable lightweight plastic, and eye-catching colors to replace the bland wood tone of the bamboo.
They put beads inside of it so that when kids would move their hips, you'd get a fun sound effect.
They went to local parks, and had different people demo it, and get kids in Southern California to talk about it and wanna play with it.
People were drawn to the Hula Hoop.
It was so simple but required concentration.
It had a rhythm to it kind of hypnotic.
It's the new Shoop Shoop Hula Hoop, with the new shoop sounds in the hoop.
Hey, take it out, show it everywhere.
It's more fun from Wham-O.
They were making it as fast as they could, but also farming out to production to many different places just to simply to keep up with demand.
By the summer of 1958, the Hula Hoop becomes the biggest toy fad the world has ever seen.
But not everyone is celebrating Wham-O smash hit.
They're suing us.
Oh, that sure doesn't read like a love letter.
In 1963, after years of debt and declining sales, Betty James hopes to bring Slinky back from the brink of ruin.
Betting everything on an expensive marketing campaign with a new catchy jingle.
It's Slinky It's Slinky For fun the best of the toys It's Slinky It's Slinky The favorite of girls and boys It's Slinky It's Slinky It's a fun and wonderful toy Slinky Slinky it's for girls and boys Yeah, I'm a nerd.
So I remember that stuff.
Yeah, I know.
It was cool.
Every time they hear the jingle, they think of the toy.
So it was genius.
And so that's why it became popular.
And Betty had the vision, and realized that television, and jingles and this kind of marketing was extremely important in embedding the product into American society.
So she bet, She made a bet and she won.
Ironically, the toy that started as a failed design for the military in World War II would later be used during the Vietnam War.
If you uncoil the Slinky and throw it, say up in a tree or put one hand on a pole and stretch it out, suddenly it can be used as a radio antenna because it's the perfect length for the seven to eight megahertz frequency range for communications in the field.
Betty goes on to run James Industries for nearly 40 years as President and CEO.
And just a few years before she sells the company in 1998, the movie "Toy Story" brings back the Slinky dog.
More than 300 million Slinkys in all varieties will sell in James's lifetime.
Enough to circle the earth about 150 times, if stretched.
Betty moved product, she got orders in hand, and she made the most of it.
She proved to be every bit as good a salesperson as Richard was without the liabilities.
Meanwhile, Wham-O is facing their own liability.
They're suing us.
Hulu was a huge success.
But the two that had brought the idea to 'em, Joan and Wayne Anderson, hadn't seen any royalties.
And the lawsuit isn't their only problem.
What does that look like? It looks like a Hulu Hoop.
It sure does.
But it's not.
It's a Hoop Around, they're cheaper than a Hula Hoop, And they're everywhere.
They couldn't stop people from creating plastic hoops just like theirs.
So you've got all kinds of counterfeits coming out onto the markets like the Hooper Dupers and the Wiggler Hoops.
They manufactured tens of millions more Hula Hoops, but demand dramatically drops off.
And by the end of 1958, the company reports a loss of about 90,000 in today's dollars.
The Hula Hoop bubble has officially burst.
They couldn't give them away.
And of course, they stopped the production.
In fact, we have an expression, "It went the way of the Hula Hoop.
" Meaning that it went away.
Knerr and Melin must now make good on that handshake deal with a warehouse full of unsold Hula Hoops, and a growing debt.
When the Anderson's case finally got settled in court, Wham-O had so few assets that they only had to pay the Anderson's a mere $6,000 for their concept, which had turned into this incredible toy craze.
To save their company, Knerr and Melin must do what they do best, find another hit before it's too late.
After the meteoric rise, and spectacular fall of the Hula hoop, founders Rich Knerr and Arthur Melin are desperate to get Wham-O back on track.
Wham-O basically has a business model that they burn white hot with a toy for a while, and then demand drops off.
Now they're on the lookout for the next big thing.
And a pollster named Robert Carrier came home one day to see his son sliding on their concrete driveway, he had the hose running, and it was slick concrete.
Robert had the idea to take vinyl coated plastic called Naugahyde, stitched it at intervals, inserted a hose, and the water squirted out at those intervals.
After trading out Naugahyde for a less expensive vinyl plastic, Wham-O introduces America to the Slip 'N Slide.
It immediately sells 3,000 units at $9.
95 in a matter of months.
It's a simple toy, but it was a huge hit for these guys.
Then another inventor approaches them with a new opportunity.
Norman Stingley was an engineer working in the petrochemical industry.
He devised a way to take this specialized rubber called polybutadiene, and molded in such a way that it would create a very, very dense high bouncing ball.
Basically you can throw it under a table on an angle, it will hit the floor, hit the table, and then reverse it, spin and come back to you.
And it was this table trick that made Spud and Rich have that wow moment, because a lot of high bounce balls were on the market, but not ones that could do that.
Wham-O introduces the Super Ball.
And once again, has a smash hit in the hands of kids across America.
They sold 6 million of 'em in 1965 alone.
Discover your youth power with Super Ball.
Under a dollar wherever toys are sold.
I got my Super Ball! By Wham-O.
It became such a craze that it caught the attention of President Johnson.
President Johnson orders five dozen of these balls, and gives them away as presidential gifts.
It's rumor that the Super Ball may have also inspired the name of the most watched professional sporting event in America.
In 1966, Pro Footballs AFL and NFL conferences prepare to battle it out in a final big game to be called the World Championship Game.
Lamar Hunt, the founder of the AFL, and the owner of the Kansas City Chief saw his kids playing with the Super Ball.
And in a play on that name, he gave that big game a new title that has stuck with it for more than half a century.
The Chief's on to the banger.
35 to 10.
A super debut for the Super Bowl.
America's most iconic toys have captured the imagination for decades.
But it's their creators, and the challenges they faced that are truly inspiring.
Betty James is definitely a hero of mine.
She was not only a genius, but she also forged a way for women in the toy business.
Peter Hodgson was a man who fulfilled his dream, fame fortune, the good life, all thanks to that little egg full of goo.
Richard Knerr and Arthur Spud Melin were really fun-loving guys, and it was always the wow factor.
They wanted to find a toy that made you sort of step back and go, "Whoa, that was interesting.
" Novelty toys built America in the sense that they have allowed people at every price point to get in on the fun.
Toys like Slinky, Silly Putty, the Hula Hoop build us as a culture, as country, and as a toy industry they united people.
All of these toys, what they have in common is they're hands-on toys.
There's a connection between your hands, and your brain in the development of kids.
So these toys certainly built the kids that would grow up and build America.

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