The Frisbee, Hula Hoop, and Superball: Thanks Richard Knerr, and RIP

I'm not sure whether to say that the business world--not to mention kids everywhere--lost a giant of an inventor or a giant of a marketer this week, when the man responsible in part for the Frisbee, Silly String, and Hula Hoop died at the age of 82.

Richard Knerr, the cofounder of toy company Wham-O, died on Monday, at his home in California, of complications from a stroke.

Founded as a mail-order slingshot business in 1948 by childhood buddies Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin, Wham-O... well, soared in the mid-1950s, when the pair bumped into Walter Frederick Morrison, who was selling his flying disks in a California parking lot. They bought the idea for the "Pluto Platter" for $1 million, modified the design slightly, and changed its name to the Frisbee. The rest... well, we all know the rest.

Wham-O went on to market other seemingly offbeat, decidedly low-tech ideas into national phenomena: the Superball, the Hula Hoop, Silly String, Slip 'N Slide water slide, and, later on, the Hacky Sack. Eventually, the tiny company became a 1,000-employee outfit, occupying 8 buildings in a 171,000-square-foot complex in San Gabriel, California, from where it developed some 40-50 new toys a year.

Unfortunately, acquisition didn't spark ingenuity: In 1982 Knerr and Melin sold the business to Kransco Group for $12 million, which later sold it to Mattel. Mattel killed off all the products except the Hacky Sack, Hula Hoop, and Frisbee.

The real genius of Knerr and Melin seems to have been their ability to recognize a good idea when they saw one. But, at the same time, they knew how to market. Wham-O had a assortment of 8-12 straightforward and inexpensive products that could be sold at a price five times the cost of manufacturing and promotion, the New York Times writes.

Interestingly, it also solicited ideas from the public--well before "user generated" would be a business catch phrase--alongside its stable of in-house inventors. Other factors came into play, too: Wham-O marketed most of its products in the spring and summer, and set up a broad array of retailers to carry their offbeat stuff.

Boing Boing calls Wham-O a "perfect blend of California entrepreneurship, space-age optimism and postwar manufacturing methods." Richard A. Johnson, in his book American Fads (William Morrow, 1985), said the Hula Hoop "remains the standard against which all national crazes are measured," according to the New York Times.

All of that is probably true. But for kids growing up in the 1970s, Wham-O toys defined the era. Take a look at this commercial; it pretty much sums up a good time in the 1970s:

The TV spot features adults. But the reality was that Wham-O toys were among the best to expose the chasm between kids and adults of the 1970s.

Wham-O toys were made for kids, and for all their simplicity they seemed in various ways designed to completely flummox the grown-ups, who, at least in my memory, were far more square than adults today.

My Dad's efforts to throw the Frisbee to us kids at the beach had him hilariously flailing around like a bass dragged ashore. In third grade, Miss McCauley was tortured to tears the day she turned her back and our classroom's three bad boys in unison bounced their Superballs off the blackboard; they landed with thumps and proceeded to bounce again and again ("Bounces almost forever!"), hailing down on the awed rest of us.

And before Silly String was banned by municipalities around the country, it was long banned by parents, who found that it lifted the finish off of the coffee table faster than paint thinner.

RIP--and thank you--Richard Knerr.