Adjusted for Inflation: A History of the Reebok Pump

Reebok
Reebok

The way Reebok president Paul Fireman figured it, the company’s biggest problem came down to one thing: Michael Jordan had gas.

It was 1988, and Jordan’s Nike Air sneakers were shipping with a balloon in the heel that was filled with compressed gas to provide additional comfort and support. In the sports apparel world, this was a high-tech development that allowed Nike’s marketing team to fuse science with footwear. Combined with Jordan’s fame, the push was quickly eating into market share. Nike would go on to take the lead over Reebok the following year.

Something had to be done. Fireman made engineer Paul Litchfield the point man on the project and told him that the company was in need of a customizable sneaker. How Litchfield and his team arrived at realizing that idea was up to them. The only thing Fireman could point to as a reference was an inflatable ski boot made by Ellesse, a sporting goods brand Reebok had recently acquired. It was clumsy looking, though, with brass fittings and meant for stationary feet. It appeared medieval.

In less than a year, Litchfield and his co-developers would take that primitive notion and turn the sneaker world upside-down, selling nearly $1 billion worth of product. They’d also manage to get a national television commercial banned, call out Jordan in ads, and wind up in a bitter court fight with colleagues. The Reebok Pump was going to be so successful that the company might just burst.

The bladder sewn into every Pump. Reebok

Running enthusiast Joseph William Foster’s idea for spiked racing cleats led him to found the J.W. Foster and Sons footwear company in 1895. When his descendants were going through his things in 1958, they came across a dictionary from South Africa that he had won in a race. It had a listing for rhebok, a type of antelope found in the territory, but spelled it reebok. The family decided a name change would be appropriate.

Sneaker branding didn’t really enter the public consciousness until 1968, when several athletes were seen wearing striped Adidas during the first internationally-televised Olympic Games. It would be another decade before Reebok asserted its market dominance by offering a line of shoes targeted for aerobic activity. The Reebok Freestyle, endorsed by fitness pro Gin Miller, was a tremendous success: At one point, the company was responsible for half of all women’s sneaker sales in the U.S.

Reebok enjoyed their prominence until 1987, when they began a slide that culminated in Nike pulling ahead in 1989. Founded by Phil Knight, Nike had hitched itself to Michael Jordan at a time when athlete endorsements were exploding. Even when Jordan was seen peddling McDonald’s hamburgers, viewers were reminded of his Nike affiliations: the two were inseparable. "Just Do It" burrowed into popular consciousness.  

Losing ground made Fireman want to speed up, but Reebok didn't have a surplus of manpower in design. When he directed Litchfield to develop a customizable sneaker, Litchfield took his team to Design Continuum, a Massachusetts-based consultancy that specialized in making threadbare ideas tangible. A designer with the firm had previously worked on inflatable splints; another had experience with intravenous bags. Putting these seemingly disparate thoughts together gave them the answer: an inflatable bladder built directly into the shoe.

Design Continuum presented Reebok with what amounted to a more complex blood pressure cuff. By pumping air into the bladder, the sneaker would swell to provide better ankle support—and though Reebok would never dare claim it, might even help prevent injuries.

Two prototypes were produced: One allowed users to pump air in manually, and the other would inflate as the wearer walked around. Litchfield thought the latter was cool—almost as though the sneaker had a mind of its own—but was quickly vetoed when he tested both at area high schools. The kids had fun using the pump; even letting the air out produced a satisfying hiss. Litchfield realized that, at least for younger consumers, the Pump was part toy. Working with designer Paul Brown, the fun factor was emphasized by turning the inflation mechanism into a familiar basketball shape.

When the shoe debuted at a trade show in February 1989, Litchfield was excited to see a lot of interest. He was also worried. Just a few feet away and encased in glass was the Air Pressure, another air-chambered sneaker. Nike had developed it and was showing it off in a private room.

Litchfield thought Reebok would be too little, too late. But the Air Pressure had one fatal flaw: Its method of introducing air required an exterior pump that would have to be hooked into the sneaker to inflate it. As Nike would find out, no one was looking to carry tools around for their footwear.

Still, it appeared Nike had undermined them once again; Fireman didn’t want to waste any more time. After a positive reaction at the trade show, he told Litchfield to have the Pump ready by November of that year. It was a highly compressed schedule, but Litchfield thought it was doable.

The sneaker, however, was unlike any athletic wear ever developed. The shoes were made in Korea, but the bladders were molded by a medical supply company in Massachusetts. That meant Litchfield would get a batch of bladders, have them tested twice, then send them overseas so they could be sewn in. The factory would test them again upon arrival, and then a fourth time after assembly to make sure no sewing needles had punctured the mold.

Litchfield thought this was thorough. But when the initial order of 7000 pairs landed in Boston that September, he got a frantic phone call from the warehouse. None of the sneakers would inflate.

Cristian Borquez, Flickr // CC BY 2.0

The Korean factory had tried to cut corners. In testing the bladders after the sneakers were completed, they used sewing machines with the needle removed. They thought it would prevent damage, but it wound up kinking the plastic mold. Litchfield and his small staff had to re-sew thousands of pairs with new bladders.

While Reebok was a proven commodity, the launch of the Pump in November 1989 brought with it a considerable amount of controversy. The sneaker was priced at $170, an astronomical sum for the time (even Nike didn’t have the nerve to exceed $100 on their Jordans). While some of the cost was in trying to amortize the expense of the bladder system, Reebok also knew that there might be an upside to a high sticker price. Sneakers had increasingly become status symbols, a pronouncement of cool in high school hallways and on neighborhood basketball courts. If the Pump became a must-have, people would pay what Reebok was asking and cut spending corners elsewhere.

Reebok launched the Pump virtually head-to-head with the Nike inflatable, and it quickly became apparent which space-age technology consumers preferred. With an unattractive design and a tool that could easily get lost, the Air Pressure paled in comparison. Reebok hammered home the idea that no two feet were alike, mentioning that a left foot might need only 16 “pumps” to arrive at a perfect fit while the right could require 21 or more. Kids who couldn’t afford the sneaker crowded around those who could, wanting to see how it worked.  

The company was also aggressive in targeting Jordan, running spots that featured Atlanta Hawk Dominique Wilkins taunting his on-court nemesis: “Michael, my man,” he boasted, “if you want to fly first class, pump up and air out!”

Nike took the high road, telling media their shoes were performance-based and not trying to resort to “gimmickry.” But Reebok persisted. In March 1990, they ran a television spot during an NCAA game that depicted two bungee jumpers descending at the same time. One bounced up, smiling; his Pump sneakers had kept their fit. His companion was nowhere to be found. The ill-fitting Nikes had presumably led to his death.

Parents were furious, complaining the ad was morbid; CBS only aired it once before banning it. But the damage to the competition was done. By the end of 1990, Nike was expecting to sell just $10 million of Air Pressure inventory; Reebok had logged $500 million with their Pump innovation. The New York Times declared that if the sneaker was its own company, it would be the fourth-largest in the industry.

It was a banner year for Reebok, but 1991 would prove to be even bigger. The Pump was about to steal the spotlight away from Jordan near his hometown. And Reebok didn’t even have anything to do with it.

Dee Brown was just a rookie on the Boston Celtics. At six-foot-one, he also wasn’t as physically imposing as some of the players assembled for the NBA’s annual slam dunk contest. For the February 1992 edition, the event would be held in Charlotte, North Carolina, not far from where Chicago Bull Michael Jordan had attended high school and college.

Jordan had won the 1987 and 1988 contests impressively before opting out. That left local hero Rex Chapman to impress the crowd. Waiting his turn, Brown figured he should do something to get their attention. When it was his time to take center court, he bent over and began pumping up his sneakers. The fans went wild with anticipation. Brown won the contest, and the Reebok Pump got a priceless commercial that would send demand into orbit. Total sales for the company increased 26 percent in 1991.

The Pump was soon making its mark across a variety of sports. Michael Chang, a world tennis champion, endorsed the sneaker and modeled a design featuring a fuzzy green tennis ball pump; Boomer Esiason peddled them in football; running shoes, golf shoes, and cleats got the air-bladder treatment. Reebok produced a variety of releases, including one with a digital display and another, the Insta-Pump, that allowed for a canister to be attached and inflate the sneaker instantly. In a nod to the sneaker industry’s debt to the 1968 Olympics, the shoes showed up in the 1992 Games. By that time, the price was a more reasonable $130 for the top model.

As sales boomed, the company had to cope with the expected copycat releases. L.A. Gear, which was seeing sales wane, issued a Regulator shoe with air-bladder inserts that Reebok felt infringed on their now-patented sneaker design. L.A. Gear agreed to pay Reebok $1 million and licensing fees to settle the issue.

There was also a surprising challenge from Design Continuum, who announced they were working with Spalding on a baseball glove that could be inflated for a custom fit. Reebok was angry and filed suit, accusing the firm of appropriating trade secrets. (The two settled out of court, with terms undisclosed.)

By the time Shaquille O’Neal signed with Reebok in 1992, six million pairs of the Pump had been sold. Reebok publicly proclaimed the design would experience a drop in sales moving forward—it was intended to be a launching pad for the company’s other innovations. Fireman considered the company as a brand, not a footwear manufacturer. That would prove to be a mistake.

Reebok

While Reebok had increased their market share by 2 percent since debuting the Pump, they were never able to overcome Nike’s dominance. Thanks to Jordan, Nike enjoyed a 30 percent slice of the industry in 1992. Where Reebok had gained was against vulnerable companies like L.A. Gear and British Knights. They bombarded the market with a variety of Pump models, saturating shelves with product. The novelty began to wear off.  

Nike’s insistence on light, performance-based sneakers proved to be a winning formula: their shoes kept getting smaller while Reebok struggled with their 22-ounce high-top. While Reebok didn’t implode—it reached a record $3.8 billion in sales in 2004—it could never close in on Nike, who sold $12 billion in rubber-soled goods that same year.

The Pump never went away, offered in a variety of contemporary and retro styles. In 2005, the company issued a revamp after consulting with MIT and NASA engineers. Lke Litchfield’s earlier prototype, it would inflate with each stride as the wearer moved around. The company produced variations on the design on and off, but never reached the heights of the 1989 original.

Earlier this year, the ZPump Fusion was unveiled, an attempt to marry the comfort and amusement of a bladder shoe with the sleeker structure of cross-trainers. If it’s successful, Reebok is likely to repeat one of the shrewdest business feats in the history of the sneaker industry: charging people for air, and making millions doing it.

10 LEGO Sets For Every Type of LEGO Builder 

Amazon
Amazon

This article contains affiliate links to products selected by our editors. Mental Floss may receive a commission for purchases made through these links.

If you’re looking for a timeless gift to give this holiday season, look no further than a LEGO set. With kits that cater to a wide age range—from toddlers fine-tuning their motor skills to adults looking for a more engaged way to relax—there’s a LEGO set out there for everyone. We’ve rounded up some of our favorite sets on Amazon to help you find the LEGO box that will make your loved one smile this year. If you end up getting one for yourself too, don’t worry: we won’t tell.

1. Classic Large Creative Gift Box; $44

Amazon

You can never go wrong with a classic. This 790-piece box contains dozens of types of colored bricks so builders of any age can let their inner architect shine. With toy windows, doors, tires, and tire rims included in addition to traditional bricks, the building possibilities are truly endless. The bricks are compatible with all LEGO construction sets, so builders have the option of creating their own world or building a new addition onto an existing set.

Buy it: Amazon

2. Harry Potter Hogwarts Express; $64

Amazon

Experience the magic of Hogwarts with this buildable Hogwarts Express box. The Prisoner Of Azkaban-inspired kit not only features Hogwarts's signature mode of transportation, but also Platform 9 ¾, a railway bridge, and some of your favorite Harry Potter characters. Once the train is built, the sides and roof can be removed for play within the cars. There is a Dementor on board … but after a few spells cast by Harry and Lupin, the only ride he’ll take is a trip to the naughty list.

Buy it: Amazon

3. Star Wars Battle of Hoth; $160

Amazon

Star Wars fans can go into battle—and rewrite the course of history—by recreating a terrifying AT-AT Walker from the Battle of Hoth. Complete with 1267 pieces to make this a fun challenge for ages 10 and up, the Walker has elements like spring-loaded shooters, a cockpit, and foldout panels to reveal its deadly inner workings. But never fear: Even though the situation might look dire, Luke Skywalker and his thermal detonator are ready to save the day.

Buy it: Amazon

4. Super Mario Adventures Starter Course; $60

Amazon

Kids can play Super Mario in 3D with LEGO’s interactive set. After constructing one of the courses, young designers can turn on the electronic Mario figurine to get started. Mario’s built-in color sensors and LCD screens allow him to express more than 100 different reactions as he travels through the course. He’ll encounter obstacles, collect coins, and avoid Goomba and Bowser to the sound of the Mario soundtrack (played via an included speaker). This is a great gift for encouraging problem-solving and creativity in addition to gaming smarts.

Buy it: Amazon

5. Gingerbread House; $212

Amazon

Gingerbread houses are a great way to enjoy the holidays … but this expert-level kit takes cookie construction to a whole new level. The outside of the LEGO house rotates around to show the interior of a sweet gingerbread family’s home. Although the living room is the standout with its brick light fireplace, the house also has a kitchen, bedroom, bathroom, and outdoor furniture. A LEGO Christmas tree and presents can be laid out as the holidays draw closer, making this a seasonal treat you can enjoy with your family every year.

Buy it: Amazon

6. Elsa and Olaf’s Tea Party; $18

Amazon

LEGO isn’t just for big kids. Toddlers and preschoolers can start their LEGO journey early by constructing an adorable tea party with their favorite Frozen characters. As they set up Elsa and Olaf’s ice seats, house, and tea fixings, they’ll work on fine-motor, visual-spatial, and emotional skills. Building the set from scratch will enable them to put their own creative spin on a favorite movie, and will prepare them for building more complicated sets as they get older.

Buy it: Amazon

7. Collectible Art Set Building Kits; $120

Amazon

Why buy art when you can build it yourself? LEGO’s Beatles and Warhol Marilyn Monroe sets contain four options for LEGO art that can be built and displayed inside your home. Each kit comes with a downloadable soundtrack you can listen to while you build, turning your art experience into a relaxing one. Once you’re finished building your creation it can be exhibited within a LEGO brick frame, with the option to hang it or dismantle it to start on a new piece. If the 1960s aren’t your thing, check out these Sith and Iron Man options.

Buy it: Amazon

8. NASA Apollo Saturn V; $120

Amazon

The sky (or just the contents of your LEGO box) is the limit with LEGO’s Saturn V expert-level kit. Designed for ages 14 and up, this to-scale rocket includes three removable rocket stages, along with a command and service module, Lunar Lander, and more. Once the rocket is complete, two small astronaut figurines can plant a tiny American flag to mark a successful launch. The rocket comes with three stands so it can be displayed after completion, as well as a booklet for learning more about the Apollo moon missions.

Buy it: Amazon

9. The White House; $100

Amazon

Reconstruct the First Family’s home (and one of America’s most famous landmarks) by erecting this display model of the White House. The model, which can be split into three distinct sections, features the Executive Residence, the West Wing, and the East Wing of the complex. Plant lovers can keep an eye out for the colorful rose garden and Jacqueline Kennedy Garden, which flank the Executive Residence. If you’re unable to visit the White House anytime soon, this model is the next best thing.

Buy it: Amazon

10. Volkswagen Camper Van; $120

Amazon

Road trip lovers and camping fanatics alike will love this vintage-inspired camper. Based on the iconic 1962 VW vehicle, LEGO’s camper gets every detail right, from the trademark safari windshield on the outside to the foldable furniture inside. Small details, like a “Make LEGO Models, Not War” LEGO T-shirt and a detailed engine add an authentic touch to the piece. Whether you’re into old car mechanics or simply want to take a trip back in time, this LEGO car will take you on a journey you won’t soon forget.

Buy it: Amazon

Sign Up Today: Get exclusive deals, product news, reviews, and more with the Mental Floss Smart Shopping newsletter!

How It's a Wonderful Life Went From Box Office Dud to Accidental Christmas Tradition

Paramount Pictures
Paramount Pictures

Director Frank Capra's 1946 classic It's a Wonderful Life is sacred in the holiday movie pantheon. It's not as quotable as A Christmas Story (1983) or as lyrical as 1966's How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, but the story of George Bailey has a universal message behind it that endures more than 70 years later. Though the movie is the quintessential Christmas tale today, when it was first released in 1946, audiences and critics were lukewarm toward the picture, resulting in a box office disappointment that killed Capra's nascent production company, Liberty Films. In a strange twist, decades after it was first released, an unlikely clerical screw-up managed to turn It's a Wonderful Life into the Christmastime staple we know today.

In the 1930s, Capra became a magnet for Academy Awards, directing movies like the screwball comedy It Happened One Night (1934) and Mr. Smith Goes to Washington (1939). After Pearl Harbor, Capra knew he could contribute something to the war effort, so he took a post in Washington overseeing the development of U.S. propaganda films for the government—most notably the award-winning Why We Fight series of documentaries.

Upon returning from Washington in 1945, Capra—along with other wartime directors William Wyler and George Stevens—helped finance Liberty Films, an independent production company poised to give filmmakers the one thing they all dreamed of: freedom. The company's first film would be an adaption of a short story titled "The Greatest Gift," which would also appear in Good Housekeeping under the title "The Man Who Was Never Born," and would be adapted for the screen as It's a Wonderful Life. It's one of the few movies Capra also received a screenwriting credit for, and with a proposed budget of $2 million, it was a huge gamble for Liberty.

Something akin to a nightmare

In the book Five Came Back, writer Mark Harris describes It's a Wonderful Life's production process as something akin to a nightmare. Script rewrites, a bloated shooting schedule, and an ever-changing crew cost the studio nearly all of the original $2 million budget—well before filming was even wrapped. The spending became such a concern for Capra's partners at Liberty that George Stevens remarked, "Why the hell couldn't it be springtime?" when he saw how much it cost the production to produce fake snow for shots. Capra bet Liberty's future on audiences looking for some comforting nostalgia after the war, but he was about to see firsthand just how much the world had changed since he came back.

The original plan was to release It's a Wonderful Life in January 1947, after the Oscar deadlines, but when RKO—the film's distributor—needed a movie to release in time for Christmas, Capra's project was the easy solution. It opened just weeks after William Wyler's major studio film The Best Years of Our Lives, a hard-hitting drama about a U.S. soldier coming home after the war to pick up his life again. The two films couldn't be any more different, and the reviews reflected that.

Even at nearly three hours long, The Best Years of Our Lives was an absolute hit with critics and at the box office, recouping its budget multiple times over. It's a Wonderful Life, with its inflated budget and saccharine tale touting old-timey values, was met with a whimper, making only an estimated $3.3 million against a $3.7 million budget. Wyler beat Capra in every way: reviews, box office, and awards. The Best Years of Our Lives won seven Academy Awards, including Best Picture, while It's a Wonderful Life received only a lone technical award—ironically for the fake snow Stevens loathed.

Liberty Films had borrowed more than $1.5 million to make the film, and with such a disappointing box office return, the production company was soon sold off to Paramount. Capra only directed five feature films afterwards, none of which ever reached the heights of his pre-war work. As unlikely as it seems today, It's a Wonderful Life was seen as a flat disappointment destined for anonymity—until a clerical error changed its fate.

A Wonderful free-for-all

In 1974, the movie entered the public domain after the film's copyright holder simply forgot to file for a renewal. This meant that TV stations everywhere could play It's a Wonderful Life all day and all night and not have to pay a cent for it. Networks aren't necessarily shy about exploiting free Christmas content, and the film's reemergence on television gave Capra's story new life. While a post-World War II crowd may have rejected the movie's sentiment, subsequent generations seem to revel in the opportunity to visit the nostalgic whimsy of it all.

“It’s the damnedest thing I’ve ever seen,” Capra once told The Wall Street Journal about the film's revival. “The film has a life of its own now and I can look at it like I had nothing to do with it. I’m like a parent whose kid grows up to be president. I’m proud ... but it’s the kid who did the work. I didn’t even think of it as a Christmas story when I first ran across it. I just liked the idea.”

Legalities rewrote the history of It's a Wonderful Life yet again in 1993. The Supreme Court's previous ruling in Stewart v. Abend established a precedent that allowed the film's original copyright owner—Republic Pictures—to regain its ownership of the movie. The ruling claimed that since Republic owned the copyright on the original short story which the movie was based on, and the score for the film, they, in essence, still owned the movie. So what was once a near barrage of networks airing It's a Wonderful Life has since been pared down to just one: NBC.

The network paid for exclusive rights to air the movie, which is why you'll only see It's a Wonderful Life on TV once or twice during the holidays. But the movie's modern appeal exists because of that scarcity. The film that killed a production company 70 years ago is now an annual television event and part of countless family traditions around the globe. It turns out Capra always knew what audiences wanted, he just needed to wait for the right clerical error to prove it.

This story has been updated for 2020.