The Men Who Invented Fun: A History of Wham-O
After selling more than 100 million Hula Hoops in 16 months, Arthur “Spud” Melin and Rich Knerr took a look at their books.
They were flat broke.
The Hula had been nothing less than an international sensation, hypnotizing adults and children into rhythmically twisting just to keep a plastic ring from falling to the floor. It was inexplicable. (It was also 1958, before the advent of more sophisticated distractions.) Kids, with their resistant vertebrae, had an easier go of it than some adults, who suffered hernias and slipped discs. Even in the face of abdominal injury, no one could resist the Hoop.
But as quickly as it started, it was over. Wham-O, Melin and Knerr’s California-based amusements company, had set up so many factories and rolled out so many Hulas that the surplus of inventory robbed them of profits. Millions of rings sat in piles like gargantuan wrist bracelets. The company ended 1958 with losses of $10,000.
Melin and Knerr shrugged. There would be other fads, trends, and ideas. Wham-O took a fair share of wild swings in the marketplace. And when the novelty products missed—like the "Mr. Hootie" egg rake, meant to help users pluck out bits of egg shell from a cracked egg—at least Melin and Knerr managed to amuse themselves. But when the products hit, it made up for the lean years.
In an era dominated by toymakers who had been around for decades, Wham-O innovated or acquired revolutionary ideas: the Frisbee, Slip ‘N Slide, Super Ball, Silly String, and dozens of novelty items, all bearing their unique brand aesthetic. Melin and Knerr were boyhood friends, mugging for cameras and dreaming up ideas—like a mink button that could cover a woman’s navel—too ridiculous for larger companies to ever consider. Anyone, anywhere, could submit an idea to them and potentially get a royalty deal.
Litigation, changing tastes, and corporate shrinkage would eventually undo Wham-O. But not before Melin and Knerr wound up radically reinventing the concept of having fun.
Melin and Knerr showed entrepreneurial spirit early on. Both born in 1925, Knerr made rubber band guns out of apple crates and peddled them at the age of 9; Melin caught and sold halibut door to door. When the two became interested in falconry in their early 20s, they crafted a slingshot to shoot food into the air to train their birds. A local barber suggested they sell the contraption. After buying a hand saw at Sears, they started churning out the weapons and selling them via magazine ads in 1948.
As business partners, Melin and Knerr had an easy camaraderie. “Spud was the quiet, kind of brainy idea man and more introverted,” says Lori Knerr, Rich’s daughter. “Dad was the extrovert, a more sociable people person, so he was the one who did most interviews and the PR in the later years. They balanced and complemented each other.”
Wham-O was the comic book sound effect they assigned to their ball bearings hitting a target, and a good name for a company that specialized in launching projectiles: blowguns, throwing knives, and tomahawks followed. The adolescent appetite for dangerous weapons and sporting goods was so large that the two were soon grossing $100,000 in annual revenue.
But Melin and Knerr didn’t seem wired for conventional products. Their bowling set consisted of a ball and pins that were sold empty and filled with water to add weight (the innovation also helped reduce shipping costs to retailers); a Wham-O game of catch involved a Pluto Platter, the disc-shaped saucer later re-named Frisbee that some people thought ran along strings; a cap gun that shot peas and beans at pretend cowboys. “Greatest toy invention in years!” ad copy blared. Rare was the tag line that didn't abuse exclamation marks.
Unlike their contemporaries at Mattel or Hasbro, Melin and Knerr didn’t have to navigate a corporate obstacle course. If they liked an idea, it could be implemented immediately. Their research and development team consisted of their kids. Commercials were shot in their own backyards. More importantly, they were actually having as much fun as people thought they were. Knerr once had a baby elephant delivered to Melin’s wife, Suzy, after Melin went on an African safari without him. Before the elephant arrived, he sent a telegram posing as his partner: “Am sending live animal home, please feed it and take care of it until I get home. Love, Spud.”
“An hour later, she sees Dad and another man from work walking up her driveway,” Knerr says. “Then this fake delivery truck arrives, Suzy couldn't see what it was. They had her sign for it first. The elephant was unloaded and the delivery truck left. She didn't know what she was going to do with it.”
An hour later, Knerr had the elephant returned to the circus. In a testament to his marketing aptitude, the stunt was picked up by local press.
Wham-O was also enjoying the creative freedom that came from the plastic injection molding process, a relatively recent innovation in the wooden toy business. The technology allowed them to dream up all sorts of packaged nonsense.
“It was like a new medium,” says Tim Walsh, a Wham-O historian and author of The Wham-O Super Book. “You’d never see a company making both toys and weapons now. But they wanted to see what they could do with it.”
In 1957, Toltoys of Australia brought the concept of the Hula Hoop to Knerr and Melin. Retailers in the United States were skeptical, but the two sensed a hit. They began demonstrating the toy in parks and on television, and the fad quickly went viral. Tens of millions of hoops were snapped up, with Wham-O racing to meet demand.
But knock-off artists had smelled opportunity. With plastic molding so inexpensive, hoop hobbyists didn’t necessarily have any brand loyalty—particularly if the generic was cheaper. By Melin’s estimate, the fad started in January 1958 and ended that October.
Instead of counting a fortune, Wham-O was sitting on inventory they wouldn’t clear for years. Were it not for a chemist and a former World War II spy, things might have stopped being fun.
Ed Headrick looked over the leftover plastic from the Hula implosion and had an idea. Wham-O’s Pluto Platter, meant to capitalize on the 1950s obsession with space and flying saucers, had a wobbly motion to it. If Headrick firmed it up and added ridges to make it more aerodynamic, they might have something.
The Frisbee was reintroduced in the late 1950s, this time as an athletic endeavor. Headrick—a veteran who spied on Nazi movements during World War II—paid college kids to toss the disc on campuses. He was a good player in his own right, earning the nickname “Steady Ed” for his even throws. Frisbee grew so popular that associations and canine variations became commonplace; the Navy experimented on them to see if they could keep flares in the air longer. (They couldn’t.) Real devotees were dubbed “Frisbyterians.”
But Headrick wasn't the only mad scientist on staff. Wham-O had a second secret weapon in Norm Stingley, a chemist who brought them a highly volatile compound his company had been working on. The kinetic energy in the material was substantial: it could bounce over a two-story home.
Stingley and the company spent two years trying to create a manufacturing process that would result in a stable ball (prototypes were prone to exploding). Once perfected, the berserk Super Ball sold six million units in 1965 alone. Five dozen were ordered by the White House. The ball became so popular that football's biggest game, the Super Bowl, was a pun on it.
Wham-O would never have seen that success if not for their open-door policy: Anyone could telegram, mail, or show up in person with a toy idea. If it was good, the company would license it and pay out a royalty. (Stingley got a penny per ball.) The Slip ‘N Slide, Hacky Sack, and several others were also third-party ideas.
That wouldn’t fly in today’s toy world. “Every toy company has a submission policy,” says Walsh, who also designs games. “Most won’t even look at an idea unless it comes through an agency. Everyone is just too litigious. But Spud and Rich knew good ideas were out there and were willing to listen.”
Headrick was in charge of sifting through ideas, of which one in a thousand might be viable enough to pursue. It was a little like excavating for toy gold, but the results were worthwhile: Slip ‘N Slide, invented by an upholsterer, became one of the company’s biggest perennial sellers. Left strictly to their own sensibilities, items like the Bowmatic bow-making machine and the Super Foam Machine probably wouldn't have kept the lights on.
Wham-O also benefited from the relative economic sense of advertising nationally. With only network channels to choose from, the odds kids would see ads for the Super Ball were substantial. “They knew if they spent the money, they’d see a return on their investment,” Walsh says. “You’re never going to see a toy that costs a dollar on television again.” The success of the Super Ball and Frisbee largely made up for Wham-O’s misadventures with the Hula Hoop—which, contrary to belief, wound up being a steady seller over time.
By the end of the 1970s, Wham-O had settled into a strange sense of complacency. All the funny product names—Fling-a-Ring, Zip Zap, Water Weinie—had been exhausted. Increasingly, kids were turning less to outdoor play and more toward higher-priced electronic offerings, which meant bigger profit margins for companies. And for every Super Ball they successfully marketed, there were a dozen or more imitators shaving away at market share. Of their new releases, only Magic Window, which displayed psychedelic patterns in grains of sand, was a bonafide hit.
“People were gravitating towards stuff like Simon and Pong,” Walsh says. “They were more of an old-school company. There was a sense they had passed their heyday.”
Melin and Knerr were also faced with an unfortunate consequence of people trying to have a little too much fun: the Slip 'N Slide, intended for children, proved catastrophic to adults and teens who were too large to use it properly. When lawsuits were brought over serious injuries—including one death and two broken necks—the company ceased production.
The two never publicly commented on the injuries, but for a company that was built on levity, it had to be sobering. When Hasbro tried to buy Wham-O in 1982, Melin and Knerr were responsive. The deal fell apart: That same year, they wound up selling their fun factory for $12 million to Kransco, an outfit that would later market Big Wheels.
Knerr, Walsh says, had seller’s remorse right away. The two stayed on as consultants for several years, but it wasn’t the same. By 1994, when Mattel purchased Wham-O, the San Gabriel factory was down to a skeleton crew keeping up production of only a handful of products. There was no one like Melin or Knerr sitting over a drawing board and trying to come up with an outlandish product.
“It was difficult for dad to see his friend’s health decline,” Lori Knerr says. “They were buddies to the end.”
Knerr and Melin left behind a considerable legacy in the toy world. They had no corporate ego, willing and happy to allow inventors like Springley and Morrison to pose with their creations. With some of their biggest successes selling for under a dollar, no one was priced out of enjoying them. They thrived in a time kids functioned outside, with hits like the Frisbee prompting people to break a sweat.
Most of all, the two were able to get away with something rare in the cutthroat world of toys: they had fun.
“I once asked Rich Knerr about stuff like the Mr. Hootie egg rake,” Walsh says. “They just did it because they thought it was funny.”
Indeed, throughout their careers Melin and Knerr refused to become corporate suits, forever hunting for things that made them smile. One bowling ball-sized promotional Super Ball wreaked havoc in an Australian hotel, putting a hole in the wall before accidentally falling out a window, bouncing 15 stories, and then crashing into a sports car parked on the street below.
They showed little regret. After all, the ball was unharmed.
Additional Sources: The WHAM-O Super Book.