X

4 Toys with Weird Histories

closeup of man's hands using a Rubik's Cube
Anastasiia Moiseieva/Shutterstock

It’s hard to imagine a world without Super Soakers and Slinkys. But every beloved toy that we now take for granted has its own invention story—and some are weirder than you might imagine.

Most toys were invented with the idea of entertaining children in mind. A few, though, were conceived totally by accident, by people working on projects that had nothing to do with kids. Here are the weird histories behind some of our all-time favorite toys.

Super Soaker

The Super Soaker was invented thanks to rocket science: its creator was a rocket scientist named Lonnie Johnson.

Johnson worked on many serious projects in his career, including the Jet Propulsion Laboratory at NASA. But in his spare time, he often tinkered around with creative innovation and ended up patenting designs for everything from film lithium batteries to Nerf Blasters. It was while he was working on one of these side projects that he stumbled across the idea for Super Soakers.

In 1982, Johnson was working on a heat pump design, which started to leak. The leak wasn’t just a trickle, though: the water shot out with force. Since Johnson was always thinking about fun new inventions, the leaking heat pump immediately made him think of a new squirt gun design.

Using everyday materials like PVC pipe and an empty soda bottle, he whipped up a prototype. It worked—his prototype design used compression to shoot water almost 40 feet away. By 1986, he had a patent for the design. The patented version even had a water-powered noise generator to produce ray-gun sounds.

However, Johnson couldn’t find a toy manufacturer willing to produce his design until 1989. First released as the “Power Drencher,” sales didn’t take off until the toy was rebranded as the Super Soaker. By 1992, Johnson’s Super Soaker had become the world’s most popular toy.

Silly Putty

Weird, squishy Silly Putty also came about by accident, as a side effect of the World War II rubber shortage.

Rubber was needed for all kinds of wartime purposes, from gas masks to tires. However, the war disrupted the rubber supply chain. Even after people in the U.S. started rationing rubber, it soon became clear that the shortage was hindering the war effort. So, the U.S. government asked companies to come up with a synthetic rubber recipe.

That’s what James Wright, an engineer, was working on when he accidentally invented Silly Putty. It was 1943, and Wright mixed silicone oil and boric acid in his quest to make synthetic rubber. What he ended up with wasn’t exactly rubber, but it was interesting.

Tests revealed that Wright’s new substance didn’t just bounce like rubber—it was also stretchier than rubber, and impervious to mold. Even though it wasn’t a suitable rubber replacement, Wright was sure he could find some use for it. But none of the scientists he asked had any idea what to do with it.

In the meantime, Wright and the scientists he shared it with started showing the weird putty to their friends and families. Although it had no practical use, one thing was certain: it was fun to play with.

Eventually, the substance ended up in the hands of a toy store owner, who knew exactly what to use it for. The putty sold well as a toy, so an advertising consultant named Peter Hodgson set out to introduce it to the world. He came up with the idea of selling it inside plastic eggs and calling it Silly Putty.

Hodgson got the toy into a few stores, but it didn’t take off until a feature on it ran in The New Yorker in 1950. In the decades since, it became one of the best-loved toys of all time.

Slinky

A Slinky is little more than an out-of-context spring, but it’s inspired hours of play for countless kids (and adults). We can thank Richard James, a mechanical engineer, for the invention.

The story started in 1943—the same year that Silly Putty was accidentally invented. James was working on a design that would help equipment on ships stay secure through the ocean waves. A spring would help absorb the ship’s rocking motion and create more stability.

When James accidentally dropped his spring design on the ground, though, what happened next surprised him. Once dropped, the coiled spring kept moving across the floor. He realized that he might have a great toy on his hands.

James’s wife Betty came up with the name Slinky the following year by flipping through the dictionary for ideas. By 1945, the Slinky was officially on the market.

Because it was so different from most existing toys, it took a while to catch on. People didn’t understand what a Slinky could do at first glance—it required a demonstration. But once people saw the Slinky in motion at toy store demonstrations, it sold fast. And in the years since, television commercials have introduced new generations to what a Slinky can do.

Interestingly, the Slinky’s usefulness wasn’t limited to just entertainment over the years. Vietnam War soldiers discovered they could use the wire spring as a makeshift radio antenna to get a better signal.

Rubik’s Cube

Funny and frustrating in equal measures, the Rubik’s Cube is one of the more innovative toys out there. It was named for its inventor Erno Rubik, a Hungarian professor who also never intended to make a toy.

While teaching design, he realized he needed a way to show 3D movement in his classes. The movement of water around the pebbles in the Danube River gave him the idea for an object with a twisting mechanism that would demonstrate 3D motion.

Rubik came up with a wooden prototype that had the right motion but wanted a way to track the movements of the cube’s parts. With the addition of colored stickers to show these movements, the prototype was complete. And with the colors added, Rubik realized he didn’t just have a 3D motion model: he had created a puzzle.

At first, he wasn’t sure that his puzzle could be solved. It took weeks for Rubik to solve his own cube. But once he had, he was ready to sell his invention. After Rubik’s Cubes hit the market, they became vastly popular, eventually becoming the world’s all-time bestselling toy.


If there’s one thing to be learned from these toys, it’s that curiosity and creativity can pay off in big ways. You may never invent a bestselling toy, but if you learn to see new uses for everyday objects, you can certainly have a lot of fun.

Elyse Hauser Elyse Hauser
Elyse Hauser is a Seattle-based writer and editor with a Master's in Writing Studies from Saint Joseph's University. Her work has appeared in publications like Racked, Vine Leaves Literary Journal, and Rum Punch Press. She was awarded a 2017 Writing Between the Vines residency.  Read Full Bio »