6 Wild Furby Myths That People Actually Believed in the ‘90s

Amanda, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0
Amanda, Flickr // CC BY-ND 2.0

It's November 1998. A hot new Hasbro toy called the Furby has just been made widely available, and people are going wild. The talkative creatures are flying off store shelves. They're causing department store stampedes. They’re so widely discussed that they even make it into President Bill Clinton’s impeachment hearing the following month. (“The economy is strong, the stock market is great, although some of us still can't get Furbys—so it's not strong enough,” Representative Mary Bono said at the time.)

But under all the Furby fervor lurked some Furby fear. A November 1998 article called the toys “cute, yet vaguely menacing”; another article labeled them "slightly sinister-looking." After the initial excitement wore off, some customers decided that the concept of a lifelike toy with no off switch was a little too creepy to bear. Although the toys proved to be harmless, it didn’t stop a number of Furby-fueled hoaxes and conspiracy theories from circulating in the late '90s, at a time when Y2K anxieties were already high. Looking back now, these six myths seem almost as far-fetched as the Furby craze itself.

1. Parents thought Furbys were teaching their children swear words.

Furbys start out speaking a fictional language called Furbish, but with time and interaction, they begin incorporating more English words into their vocabulary. It might seem as if the doll is “learning,” but all of the messages are pre-programmed, with some of the phrases timed to an internal clock. Parents in the ‘90s didn’t know that, though. One Boston-based radio producer told The Wall Street Journal that he kept getting calls from parents who claimed “that Furby was picking up some of their foul language and repeating it in front of the children.” In 2000, one Walmart in Pennsylvania removed some of its Furbys from store shelves after customers complained that the toys had been cursing like sailors. Apparently, the phrase "hug me" sounded like something far filthier.

2. People thought Furbys could launch a space shuttle.

The general public grossly overestimated how advanced these toys were. Furbys had sensors that allowed them to respond to light, movement, and touch; they could also communicate with other Furbys, thanks to an infrared communication system—all of which was considered pretty cutting-edge at the time. Although the technology wasn't exactly Earth-shattering, it still ended up fueling a number of false rumors and conspiracy theories. "I've been told that we're developing a Furby that can drive a car in the year 2000," Roger Shiffman, the president of Tiger Electronics, a subsidiary of Hasbro, told CBS in 1999. "We've also been told that the current Furby has the technology to launch the space shuttle. We have one woman who is absolutely insistent that her Furby sings Italian operas.”

3. The NSA and the Pentagon thought Furbys were a national security threat.

Another widespread myth was the belief that Furbys could record or repeat conversations. Some of the country’s highest-ranking security officials even fell for it. Concerned that confidential information might be compromised, the NSA, Pentagon, and Norfolk Naval Shipyard banned the toy from each of their premises in 1999. “Personally owned photographic, video, and audio recording equipment are prohibited items,” the NSA wrote in a memo at the time. “This includes toys, such as ‘Furbys,’ with built-in recorders that repeat the audio with synthesized sound to mimic the original.” (Why anyone would want to bring a Furby to work remains an unanswered question. But then again, it was the ‘90s.) The rumors got so bad that Shiffman had to issue a statement to dispel them. “Although Furby is a clever toy, it does not record or mimic voices,” he said. “The NSA did not do their homework. Furby is not a spy!”

4. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) thought Furbys would interfere with flight equipment.

Around the same time that national security officials were discussing the possibility that Furby might be a foreign spy, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was also doing its part to protect the American people from a Furby-led hijacking. Travelers were prohibited from using CD players and laptops during take-offs and landings, and the FAA soon added Furbys to the list of restricted items. At the time, it was believed that Furbys might interfere with the plane’s equipment. Speaking to CBS in January 1999, one aviation safety consultant said he thought the new protocol might be a tad extreme. "I can just see the announcement being made: 'Turn off your laptops, put away your Gameboys, and don't play with your Furby,’” he said.

5. People thought Furbys would make medical equipment go haywire.

Furbys were banned from some wards of a hospital in Scotland out of fear that the toys' low-level electromagnetic waves would interfere with medical devices. (One dean at the University of Calgary also expressed concern that Furbys might confuse voice-activated medical equipment: "Let’s say the Furby hears the doctor saying ‘begin procedure 305’ or something like that," the dean said. "[The Furby] plays it again and all of a sudden you find radiation is being shot into some poor person.")

In response, the Emergency Care Research Institute conducted an investigation and found no such danger. The Canadian government’s health ministry carried out a similar study and reached the same conclusion. The latter study “revealed that the electric and magnetic fields given off by the ear wiggling, eye blinking, fuzzy creature are about 70 times weaker than those emitted by a digital telephone and are ‘very unlikely’ to affect the performance of medical devices."

6. People thought Furbys were made of real cat and dog fur.

As if a wide-eyed, incoherently babbling, Gremlin-like creature weren’t gruesome enough, rumors surfaced in the late ‘90s that Furbys were covered in actual pet fur. Someone went to the trouble to create a fake Humane Society press release which claimed that Furby samples had “tested positive for feline and canine DNA.” The statement, which lambasted the makers of Furby for animal cruelty, was sent to a number of media outlets. The animal welfare organization had to release a statement explaining that it wasn’t behind the previously released statement. Tiger Electronics also had some explaining to do. “It’s 100 percent acrylic,” a company spokesperson said of the toy's fur. “Yep, a lot of acrylics were killed in the name of Furbys.”

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6 Amazing Facts About Sally Ride

U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons
U.S. National Archives and Records Administration, Public Domain, Wikimedia Commons

You know Sally Ride as the first American woman to travel into space. But here are six things you might not know about the groundbreaking astronaut, who was born on May 26, 1951.

1. Sally Ride proved there is such thing as a stupid question.

When Sally Ride made her first space flight in 1983, she was both the first American woman and the youngest American to make the journey to the final frontier. Both of those distinctions show just how qualified and devoted Ride was to her career, but they also opened her up to a slew of absurd questions from the media.

Journalist Michael Ryan recounted some of the sillier questions that had been posed to Ride in a June 1983 profile for People. Among the highlights:

Q: “Will the flight affect your reproductive organs?”
A: “There’s no evidence of that.”

Q: “Do you weep when things go wrong on the job?”
A: “How come nobody ever asks (a male fellow astronaut) those questions?"

Forget going into space; Ride’s most impressive achievement might have been maintaining her composure in the face of such offensive questions.

2. Had she taken Billie Jean King's advice, Sally Ride might have been a professional tennis player.

When Ride was growing up near Los Angeles, she played more than a little tennis, and she was seriously good at it. She was a nationally ranked juniors player, and by the time she turned 18 in 1969, she was ranked 18th in the whole country. Tennis legend Billie Jean King personally encouraged Ride to turn pro, but she went to Swarthmore instead before eventually transferring to Stanford to finish her undergrad work, a master’s, and a PhD in physics.

King didn’t forget about the young tennis prodigy she had encouraged, though. In 1984 an interviewer playfully asked the tennis star who she’d take to the moon with her, to which King replied, “Tom Selleck, my family, and Sally Ride to get us all back.”

3. Home economics was not Sally Ride's best subject.

After retiring from space flight, Ride became a vocal advocate for math and science education, particularly for girls. In 2001 she founded Sally Ride Science, a San Diego-based company that creates fun and interesting opportunities for elementary and middle school students to learn about math and science.

Though Ride was an iconic female scientist who earned her doctorate in physics, just like so many other youngsters, she did hit some academic road bumps when she was growing up. In a 2006 interview with USA Today, Ride revealed her weakest subject in school: a seventh-grade home economics class that all girls had to take. As Ride put it, "Can you imagine having to cook and eat tuna casserole at 8 a.m.?"

4. Sally Ride had a strong tie to the Challenger.

Ride’s two space flights were aboard the doomed shuttle Challenger, and she was eight months deep into her training program for a third flight aboard the shuttle when it tragically exploded in 1986. Ride learned of that disaster at the worst possible time: she was on a plane when the pilot announced the news.

Ride later told AARP the Magazine that when she heard the midflight announcement, she got out her NASA badge and went to the cockpit so she could listen to radio reports about the fallen shuttle. The disaster meant that Ride wouldn’t make it back into space, but the personal toll was tough to swallow, too. Four of the lost members of Challenger’s crew had been in Ride’s astronaut training class.

5. Sally Ride had no interest in cashing in on her worldwide fame.

A 2003 profile in The New York Times called Ride one of the most famous women on Earth after her two space flights, and it was hard to argue with that statement. Ride could easily have cashed in on the slew of endorsements, movie deals, and ghostwritten book offers that came her way, but she passed on most opportunities to turn a quick buck.

Ride later made a few forays into publishing and endorsements, though. She wrote or co-wrote more than a half-dozen children’s books on scientific themes, including To Space and Back, and in 2009 she appeared in a print ad for Louis Vuitton. Even appearing in an ad wasn’t an effort to pad her bank account, though; the ad featured an Annie Leibovitz photo of Ride with fellow astronauts Buzz Aldrin and Jim Lovell gazing at the moon and stars. According to a spokesperson, all three astronauts donated a “significant portion” of their modeling fees to Al Gore’s Climate Project.

6. Sally Ride was the first openly LGBTQ astronaut.

Ride passed away on July 23, 2012, at the age of 61, following a long (and very private) battle with pancreatic cancer. While Ride's brief marriage to fellow astronaut Steve Hawley was widely known to the public (they were married from 1982 to 1987), it wasn't until her death that Ride's longtime relationship with Tam O'Shaughnessy—a childhood friend and science writer—was made public. Which meant that even in death, Ride was still changing the world, as she is the world's first openly LGBTQ astronaut.