Friday, January 18, 2008

Wham-O

Richard Knerr died earlier this week. He was 82. If you've ever hula'd a hoop, flung a Frisbee, slung a shot, sprayed Silly String, or slid on a Slip 'N Slide, you can thank Knerr.

From the LA Times obit:

With his boyhood best friend, Arthur "Spud" Melin, Knerr started the company in 1948 in Pasadena. They named the enterprise Wham-O for the sound that their first product, a slingshot, made when it hit its target.

A treasure chest of dozens of toys followed that often bore playful names: Superball, so bouncy it seemed to defy gravity; Slip 'N Slide and its giggle-inducing cousin the Water Wiggle; and Silly String, which was much harder to get out of hair than advertised.

When a friend told Knerr and Melin about a bamboo ring used for exercise in Australia, they devised their own version without seeing the original.

They ran an early test of the product in 1958 at a Pasadena elementary school and enticed their test subjects by telling them they could keep the hoops if they mastered them.

They seeded the market, giving hoops away in neighborhoods to create a buzz and required Wham-O executives to take hoops with them on planes so people would ask about them.

Wham-O soon was producing 20,000 hoops a day at plants in at least seven countries, while other companies made knockoffs. Within four months, 25 million of the hoops had been sold, according to Wham-O.
Knerr and Merlin did not conceive the hula hoop or flying disc. They remade/refined what existed, and marketed like maestros. Harkens two quotes:
- Aristotle: It is impossible that anything should be produced if there were nothing existing before.
- Edison: Make it a habit to keep on the lookout for novel and interesting ideas that others have used successfully. Your idea needs to be original only in its adaptation to the problem you are working on.
The evolution of the flying disc is fascinating. Wiki's recap:

The Frisbie Pie Company (1871–1958) of Bridgeport, Connecticut, made pies that were sold to many New England colleges. Hungry college students soon discovered that the empty pie tins could be tossed and caught, providing endless hours of sport. Many colleges have claimed to be the home of "he who was first to fling." Yale College has argued that in 1820, an undergraduate named Elihu Frisbie grabbed a passing collection tray from the chapel and flung it out into the campus, thereby becoming the true inventor of the Frisbee.

That tale is dubious, as the "Frisbie's Pies" origin is well-documented. Walter Frederick Morrison claims that it was a popcorn can lid that he tossed with his girlfriend (and later wife) Lu at a 1937 Thanksgiving Day gathering in Los Angeles that inspired his interest in developing a commercially-produced flying disc. In 1946 he sketched out plans for a disc he called the Whirlo-Way, which, co-developed and financed by Warren Franscioni in 1948, became the very first commercially produced plastic flying disc, marketed under the name Pipco Flyin-Saucer.

In 1955, Morrison produced a new plastic flying disc called the Pluto Platter, to cash in on the growing popularity of UFOs with the American public. The Pluto Platter became the design basis for later flying discs. In 1957, Wham-O began production of more discs (then still marketed as Pluto Platters).

Wham-O co-founder, Richard Knerr, in search of a catchy new name to help increase sales, and hearing of the colloquial name "Frisbie", gave the disks the trademarkable brand name "Frisbee" (which is pronounced the same as "Frisbie") on June 17, 1957. Sales soared for the toy, which was marketed as a new sport. In 1964, the first "professional" model went on sale.

And, I think they had fun (lots) while making money (some) and, building on yesterday's post, shuffling little paper. It's hard to conjure a company that has positively touched -- through the sale of products and facilitation of memorable experiences -- so many people.

+++++++++++
Post-script (19 Jan 08): From today's WSJ:
Spud and Rich, as they were universally called, liked to mix it up in the office with toy guns and Super Ball tossing contests.

From hoops to Frisbees to Super Balls -- each of which sold in the hundreds of millions -- Wham-O's biggest hits always were about active, outdoor fun. Its best products transcended trivial toys and verged on the profound. They were simple shapes -- a disk, a ring, a sphere -- that behaved in unexpectedly wonderful ways.

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