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Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions

Toys!: Amazing Stories Behind Some Great Inventions

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A fresh, intriguing look at the stories behind great toy inventions, by Don Wulffson and illustrated by Laurie Keller.

"Originally, Play-Doh only came in white. There's a good reason for this. You see, Play-Doh didn't start out as a toy. It started out as a product for cleaning wallpaper."

Have you ever wondered who invented Lego, Mr. Potato Head, or toy trains? In Toys! are the fascinating stories behind these toy inventions and many others. Learn why the see-saw was popular with the Romans, how the Slinky was used during the Vietnam War, and the reason Raggedy Ann has a red heart on her chest that says "I love you." From dolls and checkers to pinball and the modern video game, there's a wide selection here for boys and girls alike.

With humor and wit, this intriguing book serves up slices of cultural history that will inspire young readers to start thinking up their own toy inventions.

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9781250034090
Publisher: Square Fish
Publication date: 12/02/2014
Edition description: First Edition
Pages: 208
Sales rank: 328,088
Product dimensions: 7.60(w) x 5.20(h) x 0.80(d)
Lexile: 920L (what's this?)
Age Range: 8 - 12 Years

About the Author

Don Wulffson is the author of many books for young readers, including The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle and Other Strange Inventions. A teacher of English and creative writing, Mr. Wulffson is the recipient of the Leather Medal Award for Poetry. He lives with his family in Northridge, California.

Laurie Keller is the acclaimed author-illustrator of numerous books for children, including Do Unto Otters; Arnie, the Doughnut; The Scrambled States of America; and Open Wide: Tooth School Inside. She earned a B.F.A. at Kendall College of Art and Design. She lives in Michigan, in a little cottage in the woods on the shore of Lake Michigan.

Read an Excerpt


The Slinky

It was a mistake. A goof-up. An invention that didn't work. A flop; that's what the Slinky was, at least in the beginning.

In 1945, an engineer by the name of Richard James was hard at work in a Philadelphia shipyard. The U.S. Navy had hired him to invent a stabilizing device for its ships. When a ship is plowing through the waves at sea, it pitches and plunges and rocks every which way. And its navigational instruments do, too. Richard's job was to come up with something that would counterbalance the instruments so that they would be level at all times.

Springs. Richard believed that some sort of arrangement of springs would do the trick. He tried all different types and sizes, and put them together in every conceivable way. For weeks he toiled, making dozens of different devices. But none of them worked. In fact, he never did come up with the item the Navy had hired him to invent.

But one day Richard accidentally knocked a large experimental spring off a shelf. It should have just plopped to the floor. Instead, it walked down. Crawled, really. Coil by coil, end over end, it descended onto a stack of books ... then down to a desktop ... down to a chair ... and from there to the floor, where it gathered itself back together.

He tried it again and again. Each time, the same thing happened.

As soon as the workday was over, Richard hurried home. Fascinated with the strange spring, he showed his wife, Betty, what it could do. Together, they tried it out in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places. It was especially good at walking down stairs.

A toy.

Richard didn't think of it that way. Betty did. She was the one who realized that what her husband had invented was a terrific toy. Betty was also the one who named it.

At first, all sorts of names came to mind, but none seemed quite right. For the next two days she thumbed through a dictionary, keeping a list of some of the best possibilities. Finally, she came upon what she believed was the perfect word to describe the toy: slinky.

Early the next year, Betty and Richard James borrowed $500 to have four hundred Slinkys made. They went from store to store, trying to get the owners to stock them. A few did. But despite Slinky's wonderful ability to walk, it didn't move off the shelves. Not a single one was bought.

Richard and Betty were discouraged but not about to give up. Slinky was a supertoy, they were sure. And it would sell — but people needed to be shown what it could do.

They went to the manager of a large department store named Gimbel's. It took a lot of talking — even a little begging! — but finally they convinced the manager to let them put on a demonstration. Fearing the worst, Richard slipped a dollar to a friend to make sure at least one Slinky would be sold. It turned out, though, that he had no need to worry. Shoppers stared in amazement as the steel coil gracefully walked down a sloped board. Within ninety minutes, the entire stock of four hundred had been sold.

Before long, Richard and Betty were able to start their own company. Within a few years, they were millionaires. As for Slinky, 250 million have been sold to date; Slinky's sales are as strong today as ever. In the world of toys, Slinky still walks that walk, and shows no sign of ever slowing down.

• The early Slinkys were made of blue-black Swedish steel. In the first year of production, this material was replaced with less expensive American metal.

• At $2 apiece, a Slinky costs only twice what it did fifty years ago.

• There are about eighty feet of wire in a standard-sized Slinky.

• During the Vietnam War (early 1960s–1975) the Slinky reverted to its original role. First intended for the military, Slinky the toy ended up on the battlefield. Carried by radiomen in the jungles of Vietnam, Slinkys were tossed over high tree branches as make-shift antennas.

• It takes approximately ten seconds to manufacture one Slinky.

• Slinkys make good scarecrows. After seeds have been planted, try hanging a Slinky on a nearby branch. With the slightest breeze, it'll dance around, and birds will stay away.

• Slinky's most recent accomplishment was in outer space. Bunches have gone aboard space shuttles. The purpose: to test the effects of zero gravity on springs.



Some inventions popped up in different parts of the world at different times — but nobody knows for sure where and when they first originated. One of these is the seesaw. The Polynesians, Egyptians, Germans, Greeks, and Chinese all had versions of the seesaw (or teeter-totter, as it is also called).

The Romans were the first, however, to set down any written record of them. Seesaws, it seems, were used in ancient Roman circuses — which had very violent exhibitions. Boxing matches to the death, crucifixions, military battles in which the soldiers actually killed each other — these were all part of the Roman circus events. Almost every act was brutal, and that goes for their seesaw act as well.

Here's how it worked. In the middle of the arena a large seesaw was set up; at either end of the device was a basket big enough to hold a man. Two clowns were then shoved out into the arena. As fast as they could, they ran to the seesaw and hopped into the baskets — just as a lion was set free from a cage. The lion, which hadn't been fed for days, charged the seesaw. When it came toward one of the clowns, he would push off the ground and up into the air. Then the animal would race toward the other clown in the basket on the ground. And that clown would immediately push off and shoot up, out of reach of the ravenous lion. Up and down they would go. The spectators thought this was great fun. For the clowns, however, it wasn't fun at all. Eventually, they began to tire. One would sadly end up as a basket of food for the lion.

The next time you're on a seesaw, you might want to think about how it was once used. And be glad you're just clowning around — and not a clown in the seesaw act at a Roman circus!

• The longest that two people have seesawed is 820 hours. The record was set by Charles Ryan and Philip Duiett of Theodore High School, Theodore, Alabama, February 23 through March 28, 1976.

• The original meaning of the word seesaw was "back and forth."

• The original meaning of the word clown was "peasant."



The Great Depression of 1929 put people out of work all around the world. One such person was Ole Kirk Christiansen, who lived in the little town of Billund, Denmark. Mr. Christiansen was a carpenter, but unfortunately there was little work to be found. By 1932, he still did not have a steady job. To make ends meet, Christiansen began handcrafting such things as wooden ironing boards, stepladders, wheelbarrows, and toys. Then, with his wife and son, he would travel the countryside to sell his products to local farmers.

When the Depression finally started to ease up, most people returned to their old jobs. But Christiansen had become very skilled at crafting wooden toys, especially animal pull toys, and there was great demand for them. He realized that he could make more money creating toys than he could building houses. Besides, he enjoyed the work more.

Having decided to go into the toy business full-time, Christiansen opened his own company. He combined two Danish words, leg godt, which means "play well," in naming his new company Lego. (Christiansen may not have known it, but lego is also a Latin word — and one with a very appropriate meaning. In Latin, lego means "I put together.")

When the Lego company opened its doors for business in 1932, no Legos were made there — for the simple reason that they hadn't been invented yet. At first, Christiansen and his employees made only wooden toys such as dolls, blocks, hobbyhorses, and marionettes. After a year of operation, they began making plastic toys as well.

One day Christiansen whittled some clever new building blocks. What made them unique was that they interlocked. Kids would really like the blocks, he felt sure; but he knew it would be both difficult and expensive to mass-produce wooden ones. Right away, he realized the blocks could be produced much faster and cheaper using plastic instead of wood. In 1949, Christiansen came out with what he called Automatic Binding Bricks. The sets were in two colors: red and white. As they do today, the blocks had studs on top, were hollow underneath, and could be easily stacked and locked together.

In Europe, the toy was a hit from the get-go. Soon, buyers were telling shopkeepers that they wanted more colors. Green, yellow, and blue blocks were added. At the suggestion of his son Godtfred, Ole renamed the product Lego Bricks — which eventually became just Legos.

Five years later, Ole and Godtfred improved their product. Tubes were added, which gave kids many new and interesting ways to connect the blocks. In the original 1949 version, the bricks could only be stacked directly on top of one another. Now, two eight-studded bricks could be joined in twenty-four different ways. Six eight-studded bricks could be combined in over a million ways!

By the end of the 1950s, Legos had become one of the most popular toys in Europe. But not until 1961 did the toy finally reach the United States. Why it took so long for the product to reach this country, no one really knows but by the early 1970s it was one of the best-loved and best-selling items in America, too.

Presently, Legos are manufactured in hundreds of different sets. Some sets just contain the basics: building blocks and connecting tubes. Others come complete with a wide variety of items for play, such as small cars, roadways, ramps, roofs, and even "city maps." It's a whole little world unto itself, and — perhaps best of all — it's a world that you create.

• Legos are made of a plastic called ABS (acrylonitrile butadiene styrene). During the manufacturing process, the plastic is heated to the consistency of bread dough. It is then pressed into molds, cooled, and ejected — all in about ten seconds.

• The process for making Legos is now almost mistake-free. Out of every million Legos made, an average of only twenty-six are rejected.

• Today, the Lego company produces over 1,700 different-shaped bricks, and they come in almost every color imaginable.

• In Billund, Denmark; Carlsbad, California; and Windsor, England, Legoland parks exist. In addition to the usual rides and attractions, there are numerous buildings and other structures, all constructed of Legos. No special pieces are used. All the Legos come from the same sets found in toy stores. (The only difference is that the pieces are glued together.)

• Between 1949 and 1998, more than 203 billion Lego building bricks were produced.

• In 1969, the first official Lego World Cup building championship was held in Billund with thirty-eight children from fourteen different countries participating.



People have been doing it for thousands of years, and they haven't tired of it yet — spinning tops.

The oldest tops were discovered in Babylonia in the nineteenth century. On expeditions in the Middle East, archaeologists opened three-thousand-year-old coffins. Inside were human remains, and with the remains were handmade objects of every kind, possessions the person most enjoyed in life. The children were buried with their favorite toys. For many, these included tops. The tops were made of clay, either solid or hollow. Etched and painted on the sides were pictures, usually of animals.

From Babylonia, tops made their way to many other countries such as Greece, India, and Russia. But it was in Japan that the art of top making blossomed. The ancient Japanese painted tops with clever designs so that, when they were spun, all sorts of wild, intricate images appeared. The Japanese were the first to put holes in clay tops, which made them hum and whistle as they whirled. Another Japanese innovation was putting tiny lanterns in tops. Spinning in the dark of night, the tops filled a room with lights and shadows that danced across the walls.

The Maori, the original people of New Zealand, invented a top called a potaka. These tops, often beautifully inlaid with shells, were pointed at both ends and spun with the flick of a whip. The Maori were so skilled that they could use the whip to stop the top and then set it spinning in reverse. Another Maori top was the potaka takiri, which made a screaming, wailing sound when spun. These noisy tops had two special uses. Dozens were sent spinning at funerals, sounding like the whole world was crying for the person who had died. Maori warriors also used them when going into battle. Before they attacked, their potaka takiri were set into motion; the screaming and howling unnerved the enemy, and sent a clear warning: "You are in great danger!"

Perhaps the most unusual tops were those used in Europe in the Middle Ages. In many villages there was a single enormous wooden top about the size of a person. Sometimes — especially on icy cold mornings — a group of villagers would come together and set the top spinning by slapping the sides with their hands. Why? For one thing, the physical exertion helped everybody warm up. Besides, it was good fun and a great way to start the day.

Top comes from a Dutch word meaning "to whirl."

• The gyroscope, a type of top invented in 1810, is used to keep ships and planes level while moving.

• Tops — especially gyroscopes — help scientists better understand the rotation of the earth.

• When dice were outlawed for a time in Rome, people used numbered, six-sided tops instead.

• Playing with a four-sided top called a dreidel is a Hanukkah tradition. Each side has a Hebrew letter, and the letter on which the dreidel falls determines if the player wins a prize.


Mr. Potato Head

Straw wrappers poofed into orbit. Black olives on the ends of little fingers. Green peas flicked across the table.

As a parent, George Lerner had seen every trick, every stunt, every possible way a child can play with food. And there didn't seem to be any hope of stopping the antics. Begging, yelling, scolding, reasoning, punishing; so far, nothing had worked.

Then it happened.

One night, right in the middle of mealtime monkey business, George suddenly had an idea. Instead of trying to get his kids to stop playing with their food, he'd play with his, too! Only he'd do it in a more civilized way.

After gathering bits of junk from around the house, George grabbed a few potatoes and joined his kids at the table. Into a potato went two bottle caps for eyes. A row of thumbtacks made a metal mouth. And a strawberry on a toothpick made a silly, clownlike nose.

Bingo! Just like that, George went from the grumpy old spoiler of table-time fun to the leader of the gang.

In 1950, George was a model maker at a toy-manufacturing company. After his brainstorm, he started molding all kinds of plastic doodads — eyes, ears, noses, hats, mouths, and mustaches. With sharp little prongs in back, they could be stuck into different kinds of fruits and vegetables (potatoes being the best) to create funny faces.

Over and over, George Lerner tried to sell his Funny Faces For Food kit to toy companies. None of them were interested.

More than two years passed before a breakfast food company bought George's idea. Their plan was to make little packages of the Funny Faces pieces and give them away as premiums in cereal boxes. George signed a contract selling his idea for $5,000.

At first, George thought he had made a good deal. But then several months later he got a phone call from the owners of Hasbro Industries, a toy company that specialized in making play doctor's and nurse's kits. The owners, Henry Hassenfeld and his son Merrill, had seen the Funny Faces cereal box premium, and they wanted to talk with George.

Henry and Merrill Hassenfeld told George how much they liked his idea. They explained that the company wanted to expand its product line and that his toy was just the sort of thing they were looking for. They wanted to buy the idea and form a partnership with George.

But there was one problem — a big problem. George explained that he had sold all the rights to the cereal company.

Henry moaned. Merrill groaned. But the father-son team didn't let the matter drop. They contacted the cereal company and made them a terrific offer: George would give back the $5,000, and the Hasbro company would add another $2,000. An agreement was quickly reached. For a total sum of $7,000, the cereal company sold the rights to George Lerner, who then went into partnership with Merrill and Henry Hassenfeld.

George went on to become a millionaire and so did the Hassenfelds. As for the product, it got a new name — Mr. Potato Head. A year later, Mrs. Potato Head came along and then eventually daughter Yam and son Spud. For the most part, they're a very happy family — except sometimes the kids play with their food!


Excerpted from "Toys!"
by .
Copyright © 2018 Henry Holt and Company.
Excerpted by permission of Henry Holt and Company.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Table of Contents

Title Page,
Copyright Notice,
The Slinky,
Mr. Potato Head,
Playing Cards,
Silly Putty,
Windup Toys and Automatons,
Remote-Controlled Toys,
Raggedy Ann,
Toy Soldiers,
Magic Rocks,
Super Ball,
Toy Trains,
Table Tennis,
From Pinball to Video,
Trivial Pursuit,
Novelty Gags,
Web Sites,

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