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Scrabble

Created in 1931 by an out-of-work architect named Alfred Botts.  He hoped he could support his family by inventing a successful word game, but before the game was refined, he had his job back.  That was just as well; when he finally showed his hand-made “Criss-Cross” to toy companies, they insisted it had not potential – it was too intellectual.

In 1948, Botts and a friend went into business manufacturing the game, now called Scrabble, in an old schoolhouse.  It was an unsophisticated cottage industry that enabled the friend to barely eke out a living.  But in the summer of 1952, for no apparent reason, Scrabble suddenly became a fad.  In two years, the partners went from selling fewer than 10,000 games a year to selling more than 4 million.  To meet the growing demand, the rights were sold to Selchow-Righter, and 30 years later, Scrabble ranks as the second bestselling game in history.

Lincoln Logs

In 1916, Frank Lloyd Wright went to Tokyo to supervise construction of the Imperial Palace Hotel, a magnificent building assembled with an inner frame of wood so it would withstand earthquakes better.  Wright brought his son John with him, and as John watched workers move the huge timbers required for the structure, he came up with an idea for a wooden construction toy.  When he returned to America, John created Lincoln Logs.

Silly Putty

In 1945, an engineer at a General Electric laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut, was assigned the task of trying to create synthetic rubber.  One day he combined boric acid with silicone oil.  The result:  a bizarre substance with a variety of fascinating properties (it bounced, stretched, and could be broken with a hammer), but no practical use.  It became a New Haven conversation piece.  Several years later, a marketing man named Peter Hodgson saw a group of adults playing with the stuff at a cocktail party.  Hodgson was putting together a mail-order catalog for a toy store at the time, and decided to include this “nutty putty” in it.

The response was amazing.  Even without a photo, the putty outsold everything in the catalog except crayons.  Hodgson knew he had a winner, so he bought $147 worth of putty from G.E. and packaged it in little plastic eggs.  In the first five years, over 32 million containers of the stuff were sold worldwide.

Rubik’s Cube

Devised by Hungarian mathematician Erno Rubik in 1974 as an aid for teaching math concepts to his students.  Rubik realized the puzzle’s possibilities as a toy and ended up selling 2 million of the cubes in Hungary alone, a total of one cube for every five Hungarians.  In 1980, the Ideal Toy Corporation bought the rights, and the puzzle became a worldwide craze.  Rubik reportedly became “the first self-made millionaire in a Communist country.”

Slinky

Richard James, a marine engineer, was trying to invent a spring that could be used to offset the effects of a boat’s movement on sensitive navigational instruments.  One day he knocked a simple spring off a high shelf, but instead of simply falling, it uncoiled like a snake and “crawled” down to the floor.  James realized he had a toy product, gave it a name, and formed the James Toy Company to manufacture it.

Tinker Toys

Charles Pajeau, an Evanston, Illinois, stoneworker, conceived of Tinker Toys in 1913 after observing some kids playing with “pencils, sticks, and empty spools of thread.”  He designed it in a garage in back of his house, and brought the finished toy, packed in its famous cannister, to the 1914 American Toy Fair.  But the public wouldn’t buy it.  So Pajeau had to prove his marketing genius; at Christmastime, he dressed some midgets in elf costumes and had them play with Tinker Toys in the windows of New York’s Grand Central Station and Chicago’s Marshall Field’s department store.  The publicity this stunt attracted made all the difference; a year later, more than a million sets had been sold.

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