Editor’s Note: Brian Murphy is camping out in front of the Verizon Center, hoping to catch a glimpse of Shaquille O’Neal, who is hosting a WWE event there on Monday. So this week we bring you a guest column by Brandon Miller.]
In the last 100 years our country has had numerous inventions that improved our quality of life – including the Cotton Gin, the automobile, indoor plumbing and television. Then there are other things that we think will improve our quality of life, like those big-ticket Christmas presents that every kid has to have or those crappy knickknacks bought roadside during cross country family vacations.
Do you even know where that Cabbage Patch Kid or Tickle Me Elmo doll that people came to blows over is these days? How about your Silly Putty, Deely Boppers or Wacky Wall Walker?
In honor of the latter group, this week I’m going to spotlight a few of those things that we could have lived our whole lives without but for some reason we just had to have it. Let’s start at the beginning of the end of the Industrial Revolution.
“What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs and makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. For fun it’s a wonderful toy.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl or a boy.
It’s fun for a girl or a boy!”
In 1945 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Naval Engineer Richard James debuted The Slinky at a department store and sold his entire inventory of 400 units in less than two hours. The Slinky was accidentally discovered while James was working at home doing research on springs that could support and stabilize sensitive instruments aboard Naval ships in rough waters. One of the springs fell from a shelf, and the spring started a walking motion that took it from the shelf to a table to the floor, where it recoiled itself.
Within no time, James decided he could market this as a child’s toy. He began with a $500 dollar loan, enlisting the help of a machine shop to make the first batch. Later, along with the help of a silent partner, he set up a shop in Philly that could turn out a Slinky in under a minute and began marketing a line of toys that included the Slinky Dog (which was redesigned after the release of Pixar’s Toy Story), Slinky Train, Slinky Worm and Slinky Crazy Eyes. The Slinky is known to be the first toy fad in America.
Over the years, people have tried to find other uses for the toy. School teachers have used The Slinky to demonstrate momentum and properties of waves. NASA used Slinkys in zero-gravity physics experiments in the Space Shuttle. During the Vietnam War, U.S. troops used them as mobile radio antennas. Personally, I remember hours of playing one like an accordion, holding one end as I flung out the other end just to watch it spring back and hit the floor and even using it as a jump rope (forcing my dad to spend hours untangling it).
In the 70s, we got the first real glimpse of how Americans truly will buy anything that is marketed effectively. Remember the Pet Rock?
The first Pet Rocks, conceived in 1974 by advertising executive Gary Dahl, were ordinary gray stones bought at a builder’s supply store and marketed as if they were live pets. The fad lasted about six months and the rocks sold for $3.95 a piece, making Dahl a millionaire.
Other entrepreneurs quickly jumped on board and came up with Pet Rock Obedience Lessons and Pet Rock Burial-at-Sea Services, proving that you don’t even have come up with an original idea – just find something already popular and latch on to it.
And while rocks may not make the best pets in the world, they are still a better alternative than a * shudder * hairless cat.
The Rubik’s Cube was invented by Hungarian sculptor Erno Rubik in 1974. Licensed by Rubik, it was sold by Ideal Toys in 1980 and won numerous awards for Game of the Year. Reportedly, over 350 million cubes have been sold worldwide. Every house had one of these (usually seen with one side completely matched and the rest in disarray or in pieces waiting to be reassembled with the colors matching).
Once the Rubik’s Cube took the world by storm, a lot of imposters started to surface, making everything from keychains to knockoffs sold at the local fair where the colors weren’t quite right (brown was never a color on the original, damn it). There was money to be made in other mediums, as well. There was even a Saturday Morning Cartoon crafted after this inanimate object called Rubik, The Amazing Cube. The opening theme song was performed by 80s boy band Menudo and the show’s plot failed to even remotely characterize the annoying puzzle. You certainly have to strike while the iron is hot, but a cartoon?
I always believed that the hardest part of solving the puzzle was to get the stickers back on straight so it didn’t look like you took them off.
Now for “The King of All Useless Tchotchkes.”
In 1998, inspired while in a Brass Pro Shop, Gemmy Industries Vice President Joe Pellettieri decided to make a singing fish. After numerous prototypes, it hit the streets in 2000. (How much does one have to suck at life to have “Big Mouth Billy Bass” as your crowning achievement?)
Four C cell Batteries powered this motion-activated, Bobby McFerrin-spewing micropterus salmoides of fun. You could not go in to a Cracker Barrel or Bass Pro Shop without being subjected to one of these dandies. It even featured a re-recording of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River.” Get it? It’s a fish on a plaque. Therefore taking him to water would … nevermind.
Imagine all the folks involved in this bad decisions before it ever saw the light of day. Someone came up with the concept. Someone else thought it was good idea. After countless morons jump on board, eventually someone agrees to put money behind it and manufacture it. Musicians like Bobby McFerrin decided to allow their music to be attached to a singing fish. And finally, you “good” people all went into stores and purchased this damn thing.
And, if you are ever feeling nostalgic for this piece of crap, or if you need to get back to your white-trash roots, there’s an iPhone app for Big Mouth Billy Bass and I think you can even friend him on Facebook.
This is why the terrorists hate us.
We love to throw our money at useless crap (and Michael Bay movies) and don’t put enough time into keeping good TV shows from getting canceled. (Do Chuck, Boomtown and Freaks and Geeks ring any bells?). Don’t fall for the latest fad. Don’t buy crap simply because it has a clever commercial or a catchy jingle. Be different. Get off Facebook and read a book … like How to Create Your Own Fad and Make a Million Dollars by Ken Hakuta.
Brandon Miller is a grown up version of Milhouse Van Houten from The Simpsons.