ANNALS OF INVENTION
What Makes A Toy Fun?
From The New Yorker
December 15, 2003
In 1913, an Illinois stonemason named Charles Pajeau created
a toy after seeing his children playing with pencils and empty thread
spools-he called it Tinkertoy. In 1916, John Lloyd Wright, the son
of the architect, invented Lincoln Logs, a toy inspired by watching
the earthquake-proof, "floating cantilever construction"
of his father's Imperial Hotel, in Tokyo. During the Second World
War, a mechanical engineer named Richard James was working on ships'
suspension systems when a torsion spring fell off his desk and flopped
over, and the way it wiggled struck him as funny. His wife, Betty,
paging through the dictionary, came upon a word for the toy: Slinky.
In 1982, a nasa nuclear engineer named Lonnie Johnson was working
at home on a high-pressure pump when a jet of water accidentally
shot across the bathroom. Since then, more than two hundred million
Super Soakers have been sold.
Seventeen years ago, Chuck Hoberman was a kinetic
sculptor, with a degree in fine art from Cooper Union and a degree
in mechanical engineering from Columbia University. He and his wife,
Carolyn, who was also an artist, lived in a seventh-floor walkup
just below Canal Street, in a dilapidated building with a sign outside
that said, "Gentleman-Please Do Not Urinate on the Door. It
Is Unsanitary." Chuck was interested in transformations-mechanical
objects that could change their size without changing their shape.
"I was obsessed with the idea of making objects disappear,"
he told me. "Not as a magic trick, but where the object could
self-transform-change itself by itself." He tried to imagine
a scissors hinge, like those you see in old-fashioned elevator doors,
except in three dimensions, so that the structure could expand into
a dome or a sphere. What would the geometry of such a structure
look like? Early in the morning, before going off to his job at
an engineering firm, Chuck would sit in his "study" (created
by hanging a sheet between the desk and the bed), folding pieces
of paper into triangles, pentagons, and polyhedrons. He worked on
the problem for several years, but he made no progress.
The Hobermans are Buddhists, and one day in the
spring of 1987 they were visiting their teacher's retreat, at a
farm in the Hudson Valley. "I was listening to a great Tibetan
lama who was teaching the philosophy of mind, a kind of brick-by-brick
construction of the proper view of consciousness," Chuck recalled.
"Each point was introduced, examined from the point of view
of several different schools of Buddhist thought, then synthesized
into a conclusion that led to the next point. I was supposed to
be meditating, but I was drifting. It was a beautiful spring day,
and the room was warm. Then there was a click, and in an instant
I saw the solution to my obsession. I saw a linkage-a hinged loop
of pieces moving in space. I could see how two, three, many linkages
could be attached to one another to build up an entire transforming
Chuck took out a patent on the idea, which was
described in the technical literature as a "Doubly-Curved Truss
Structure." He thought of his structure as art, but he wanted
to prove that it had a practical, money-making purpose as well;
utility is an essential part of Chuck's aesthetic. He had a series
of conversations with Martin Mikulas, who was then the head of structural
concepts at nasa's Langley Research Center, about developing his
invention for space travel. He also spoke to a tent manufacturer
about making a tent that wouldn't require poles, a luggage-maker
about creating suitcases and trunks that could fold up for easier
storage, and a medical-equipment manufacturer about making instruments
for noninvasive surgery. Everyone Chuck spoke to was certain that
he had invented something valuable, but no one was sure exactly
what it was.
The notion that what Chuck Hoberman had
invented was a toy came from Anthony Gentile, who, along with his
twin brother, John, is a partner in Abrams Gentile Entertainment,
a firm that creates toys and brokers ideas to larger manufacturers.
Most independent inventors need toy brokers in order to gain access
to the industry. Hasbro and Mattel, which between them account for
about thirty-five per cent of the industry's twenty billion dollars
in annual domestic sales, don't even consider independent solicitations.
The Gentiles had read about Chuck's invention
in the Patents column of the Times, and asked him to meet them at
their offices, situated across from the now boarded-up Broadway
saloon Legz Diamond's, on West Fifty-fourth Street. "John and
Anthony are these intense New York guys, and they both talk really
fast," Chuck recalled. "They look exactly the same, and
there was one of them on either side of me-it was like listening
to them in stereo."
"When we met Chuck, he had his sights set
on outer space," Anthony Gentile told me. "You know Chuck;
he's a big thinker. He was talking about building space stations
and whatnot, and we said to him, 'That sounds great, Chuck, but
how about this-a collapsible playhouse that you can fold up small
enough to fit into your back pocket!' "
The Gentiles hired Chuck to develop that idea
and several other toys, and they had a prototype of the playhouse
manufactured, which they showed to Mattel in the hope of working
out a licensing deal. "Mattel loved that toy," Anthony
said, "except for the price point-which was, like, fifty dollars.
And, let me tell you, everything in the toy business is about price
point." In recent years, as the toy industry has seen its claim
on playtime challenged by video games, toymakers have become intensely
focussed on price; more than sixty-five per cent of American toys
sell for twenty dollars or less. "I could make a doll levitate,
with no strings-a miracle!" Anthony says. "But if I can't
do it for $19.95 they're not interested."
Chuck worked for the Gentiles for two years, developing
ideas for toys, but none of them sold, and when his contract ended
he was ready to return to his career as an artist. A curator of
design at the Museum of Modern Art asked him to create a piece for
a moma show, and Chuck made a dome that could open from the center,
like an iris. He also built the two-story-high transforming sphere
that visitors to the Liberty Science Center, in Jersey City, encounter
just inside the main entrance. These projects didn't earn Chuck
much money, but they did bring him artistic credibility, and that
was what he really wanted.
Carolyn had a different vision. "I had been
going to toy fairs, meeting people, and I found the toy world to
be very interesting," she told me. She persuaded Chuck to focus
on making a toy sphere. What Chuck came up with was an unlikely
toy, a transformer that changes its shape as it expands, from a
sea-urchin-like bundle of hinges into a sphere of delicately attenuated
struts. Each hinge unfolds while at the same time pivoting, so that
its relationship to the other hinges remains the same. The struts
inscribe a series of triangles and pentagons that intersect with
each other, and the points of intersection form geodesic circles
that are similar to the shapes described by Buckminster Fuller,
who was an inspiration for Chuck.
Carolyn found a manufacturer in New Jersey that
could make the parts for the toy sphere, and together they raised
money to pay for the materials and the production costs. Carolyn
also designed the packaging for the product, which they called the
Hoberman Sphere, and which consisted of more than four hundred acrylic
pieces that required assembly at home. The Hobermans took it around
to the major toy fairs, including those in New York, San Francisco,
and Nuremberg. They didn't get many orders from retailers, but they
did get invaluable advice from other toymakers, notably Dennis Binkley,
the founder of Geospace International, in Seattle. He convinced
the Hobermans that, for financial reasons, their product should
be made in China. "He also told me our packaging was terrible,"
Carolyn says with a laugh.
In May of 1995, Carolyn accompanied Binkley on
his next trip to China. "The factory said to us, 'Do you need
the toy to snap together?' " she recalled. "And we said,
'No, I guess not.' And they said, 'Could we make it out of polypro?,'
and we said, 'Sure.' " Samples of this new Hoberman Sphere-a
lightweight, polypropylene thirty-inch toy that now required no
assembly at home-came back from China later that year. In 1997,
the Hobermans brought out a twelve-inch version, and the Store of
Knowledge, a high-end retail chain, bought practically the entire
The Hobermans' big break came on August 16, 1998,
when the Reverend Walter Shrophire, Jr., of Foundry United Methodist
Church, in Washington, D.C., used a Hoberman Sphere as a visual
aid in a sermon that he was giving about the big bang. Bill and
Hillary Clinton were in the audience; the President was scheduled
to give his grand-jury testimony in the Monica Lewinsky matter the
following morning. After the sermon, Hillary Clinton asked the minister
where he had found that marvellous toy, saying she was looking for
something to give Bill for his birthday. The minister offered his
sphere, and Hillary passed it along to the President as they stood
in the church. Outside, reporters were shouting questions about
Monica Lewinsky. People watching the news that evening saw the President,
ignoring the press, smiling cryptically as he stared into the Hoberman
Sphere, slowly opening and closing it.
"We had no idea what had happened, because
our daughter had been born on August 11th and we were oblivious
to everything," Chuck says. "When we finally checked our
messages, we heard all these people saying, 'Congratulations! You're
Today, the Hoberman Sphere can be found everywhere,
from science-museum gift shops to Wal-Mart and Toys R Us. The Hobermans
run Hoberman Designs, which is based in a large, high-ceilinged
loft in lower Manhattan, employs some twenty-five people, and does
ten million dollars' worth of business a year. With nearly five
million units sold, the sphere seems well on its way to becoming
a classic toy, a twenty-first-century Slinky, and one of the few
toys of recent vintage that are likely to be popular for a long
That might have been the end of the story-and
it would be a happy ending, more or less, like the story of Richard
and Betty James, the inventors of the Slinky. (Richard abandoned
the business and his family to join a religious cult in Bolivia,
but his wife took over, moved the Slinky factory near the Jameses'
home town of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where it remains one of
the town's largest employers, and made Slinky the world-famous toy
that it is today. Now eighty-six, Betty James was inducted into
the toy industry's Hall of Fame three years ago.)
But the toy industry has changed since the Second
World War, and the difference between the Jameses' and the Hobermans'
experience is one way of measuring just how much. Toymakers have
always created toys that appealed to parents. The Erector set (1913)
and Monopoly (1935) were products that parents could fondly believe
were preparing their children to be builders and bankers. In the
years after the war, though, toymakers began to make products that
appealed exclusively to kids-toys that, in many cases, parents actively
disliked, which was the principal source of their appeal. Toys like
Rock'em Sock'em Robots, from 1966 (the ad's tagline, "You knocked
my block off," taught me how to intimidate my younger brother),
were the heirs to toys like Gooey Louie (1995): "Pick his nose
until his brain explodes." Dolls such as Shirley Temple (1934)
and Ginny (1951)-which, in their infantile appearance, were meant
to elicit a maternal response from the children who played with
them, and thus to begin preparing girls for motherhood-gave way
to Barbie, a doll that was not the child's baby but her role model,
the girl she longed to become.
John Brewster, a toy historian, has written of
the early-twentieth-century toymakers, "They were marketing
a particular social morality-one that stressed industry, probity,
and individual endeavor." Play was the work of children, and
building blocks and baby dolls were the tools that children used
to become adults. But by the mid-nineteen-seventies toys had stopped
trying to prepare children for anything other than a perpetual childhood.
As David Elkind, a professor of child development at Tufts University
and the author of the classic book "The Hurried Child,"
told me recently, "Many toys no longer perform a socializing
function, as they used to. Toys are no different from any other
consumer product-it's all about selling something."
This evolution in the design and marketing of
toys marked the first time that children younger than twelve were
explicitly targeted as consumers. The toy industry taught the makers
of other kinds of consumer products that children were a potentially
lucrative market, and that "aspirational age marketing"
(selling the charm of feeling older) could be used to sell not only
Barbie dolls but clothes, fast food, cosmetics, and electronics.
Meanwhile, as fashion and trendiness became the driving concerns
of the toy industry, the notion of a classic, a toy made to last,
all but disappeared. (Even Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola
crayons since 1903, has seen the need to spruce up its choice of
colors with Tickle Me Pink and Macaroni and Cheese crayons.) For
the contemporary toymaker, it is less important to invent one classic
toy than it is to invent a toy that can be up-dated regularly with
new colors, styles, models, and related products. "What retailers
are impressed by is how much real estate you take up on the shelf,"
Anthony Gentile told me. "You want that whole wall of pink
that you see when you get to the Barbie section." By inventing
a timeless toy-one that didn't need to be improved-Chuck had limited
himself to a tiny piece of retail real estate.
In the years since the introduction of
the original sphere, the Hobermans have developed an entire line
of spheres, from a twelve-inch, glow-in-the-dark model to a fifty-four-inch
megasphere. They have also extended their patented linking concept
to other toys, including Flip Outs (a sphere that changes color
when you spin it) and Growbots (structures that transform into robotic-looking
creatures). So far, none of Chuck's newer concepts have caught on
like the original toy, but the Hobermans have high hopes for their
new product for this holiday season, the Sonic Sphere.
The Hobermans introduced the toy at the 2003 American
International Toy Fair, which was held at the Jacob Javits Convention
Center, in New York, last February. I went to the fair to see the
toy for myself, joining the crowd of toy inventors, producers, distributors,
packagers, retailers, and journalists who were poking around hundreds
of exhibitors' booths. As I wandered the aisles of the vast space,
I felt a sense of wonder at all the amazing things that toys can
do these days (sing, dance, teach, work out), but, at the same time,
I failed to find, among the many thousands of gewgaws, a single
item that I wanted to take home to my four-year-old son. Toys must
be two, often contradictory things in order to succeed. They have
to be fun to play with, but they also have to look, while sitting
on the shelf of the toy store, as if they would be fun to play with
(the industry refers to this as "playability"), which,
in many cases, results in an emphasis on superficial, attention-grabbing
attributes. The only toys I saw at the fair which appealed to me
were those I had played with as a child. (The toy industry has accommodated
this desire, regularly bringing back toys in twenty-year cycles,
like oldies on the radio, so that parents can duplicate their own
Toyland experiences through their children. This season's retro
toys include Strawberry Shortcake, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles,
and My Little Pony, all of which were originally popular in the
One reason so many sophisticated modern toys are
less compelling than their humble forebears is the technology itself.
Twenty years ago, the advent of electronics was hailed as "the
greatest thing in our industry since the development of plastic,"
in the words of Arnold Greenberg, the former chairman of Coleco.
This year, for the first time, more than half of the toys produced
by United States toymakers will have an electronic chip inside.
But so far technology has resulted in a striking dearth of good
toys. Although this new generation of toys are advertised as "interactive,"
they're actually less interactive than traditional toys. Mitchel
Resnick, a professor of learning research at the M.I.T. Media Lab
who studies technology and toys, told me recently, "The question
I ask about tech toys is, Does the technology keep the agency of
play with the child, or does it shift the agency to the toy?"
High-tech toys are so sophisticated that they're almost capable
of playing by themselves-children aren't required.
I found the Hobermans on the mezzanine
level of the Javits Center, under a large banner that said "Hoberman
Designs." The sound of a steel drum was coming from a nearby
exhibitor's booth. The music was supposed to be fun and wacky, but
in the cavernous hall it sounded tinny and sad; Chuck said it was
driving everybody crazy. "But the drummer has been paid for
the whole day, so he's going to play," he added.
Chuck was dressed in a green suit, an orange shirt,
and wire-rimmed glasses. He is tall, thin, and pale, and wears his
red hair cut short. He was moving around the spacious Hoberman pavilion,
meeting people, taking characteristically long strides, and yet
his glad-handing seemed forced, not like the natural blarney I've
encountered in other toy men. Chuck often looks slightly ill at
ease in public, especially when he's on display as "the inventor."
Carolyn, who was standing near her husband, appeared to be having
more fun. "I like selling," she told me. "Chuck doesn't.
He's too shy. But I really enjoy talking to people, hearing what
they have to say."
Now forty-seven, Chuck runs the design and product-development
side of the business, and Carolyn, fifty-one, oversees sales and
intellectual-property protection. For Chuck, the greatest challenge
has been finding a way to be successful in the toy business without
betraying his artistic standards. He explained, "As an artist,
my view was that one's work is the expression of an individual speaking
to a viewer who is also an individual. And, as an inventor, I'd
always loved the fact that the Patent Office only recognizes the
inventors on the patent. So my mind-set as we started the business
was that marketing was a kind of abuse of statistics. The population
is divided into arbitrary categories, but an individual can never
be a category." (When time allows, Chuck continues to seek
opportunities to use his designs in artistic and architectural contexts;
the mechanical curtain for the stage at the 2002 Winter Olympic
Games, in Salt Lake City, was a Hoberman design.)
Chuck hated the whole notion of focus groups,
which are ubiquitous in the toy industry. After all, the Hobermans'
company had been founded not on a marketing gambit but on a mystical
revelation that occurred while Chuck was meditating. "I didn't
want to know why people liked the sphere," Chuck told me. "They
liked it because I liked it, and that was enough."
The event that changed Chuck's thinking took place
last year, when the Hobermans introduced their Discover Dome-a demisphere
sheathed in origami-style folded paper that had fun facts about
planets and dinosaurs printed on it. "We simply said, 'If we
build it, they will come,' " Chuck recalled. "In retrospect,
I think we all suffered from mass hypnosis." Their fellow-toymakers
loved the ingenious domes, but kids weren't interested, and the
price, $29.99, was too high for most parents. The Discover Dome
bombed, and the Hobermans were stuck with thousands of unwanted
As a result of the dome disaster, Chuck had another
revelation. "I realized we had to get serious," he said.
The company proclaimed 2003 "The Year of the Sphere" in
its marketing literature, and Chuck's own image was incorporated
into the brand (the packaging bears a photograph of his bespectacled
red head). The Hobermans also began conducting focus groups-going
to private and public schools around New York City and asking the
kids what kind of toy they'd like to have.
The kids said they wanted a toy with music and
flashing lights-something "interactive"-so Chuck designed
the Sonic Sphere.
Like many of the exhibitors at the toy fair, the
Hobermans had hired actors to impersonate children playing with
the product, in order to demonstrate how much fun it is. (Real children
aren't permitted at the fair.) A woman was playing with the Sonic
Sphere, rotating it to make different types of vocal and instrumental
sounds emerge from the small orange plastic speaker in the center,
and expanding and collapsing it to change the pitch and rhythm of
the sounds. "So I'm hanging out here in my bedroom, and I can
be my own d.j.!" the player playing at play said.
The Sonic Sphere was getting good reviews from
other toymakers. Brooke Abercrombie, the president of Neurosmith,
stopped by. "What a great way to translate motion into sound!"
she said. But Chuck couldn't tell whether he had a hit on his hands.
"It's not like designing the sphere," he said. "Instead
of doing something that pleased me, and that, it turned out, kids
loved, now we're trying to invent what we think kids will love-which
is a very different stance."
In June, the Hobermans went to the Licensing
International trade show, which was also held at the Javits Center.
Unlike the toy fair, with its Saharan wastes of gimcrackery, at
the licensing fair there are no physical objects-the trade is entirely
in characters, narratives, and brands. Licensed toys-largely movie,
music, and TV properties-which were once a tiny part of the toy
industry, have steadily grown to encompass more than thirty per
cent of domestic toy sales. Movie tie-ins are declining, mainly
because of the relative failure of the action figures that Hasbro
produced for the new "Star Wars" trilogy, but tie-ins
to popular TV characters like SpongeBob SquarePants are on the rise.
(SpongeBob alone generated more than half a billion dollars' worth
of licensed products last year.)
Toymakers use the word "toyetic" when
they're discussing whether an entertainment property has what it
takes to be a successful toy. The movie "Men in Black"
spawned a lot of licenses, but it wasn't particularly toyetic because
the characters are limited to wearing one color. The Harry Potter
phenomenon, which also launched a tsunami of licensed products,
hasn't proved to be particularly toyetic, either, perhaps because
children would rather read the books than play with the toys.
At the beginning of his toymaking career, Chuck
would never have considered taking a license-an arrangement under
which the toymaker pays the entertainment company for the right
to use its character (and often has to guarantee a minimum payment
to the licensor, regardless of how many of the toys are sold). A
licensed toy doesn't have to be particularly ingenious, because
its appeal has less to do with what the toy does than with what
it represents. The Hoberman Sphere is the antithesis of this kind
of product: it's a toy that is what it does, and does what it is.
The other drawback of licensed toys is that they deny children the
most absorbing aspect of play: creating narratives. An ordinary
cardboard packing box can be an enchanting toy if you imagine that
it's a secret fort. But a toy that relies on a screen-based character
or story doesn't require much imagination. Licensing is the fast-food
version of toys-all you have to do is consume.
Nevertheless, like his view of focus groups, Chuck's
opinion of licensing was evolving. "I feel this is American
culture at its most distinctive," he said of the power of branding
that was on display at Licensing International. "There is something
very twenty-first-century about the idea that Lara Croft Tomb Raider
represents a part of the global economy." At the Nickelodeon
pavilion, he put on 3-D glasses and watched a "SpongeBob"
episode in the SpongeBob Tiki hut, and then had a talk with some
people from Nickelodeon about the possibility of creating a Hoberman
product based on the lovable yellow sponge, in time for "SpongeBob"
the movie, which is due in theatres in the fall of 2004. Chuck was
still hedging against a licensing deal-"What's the point, really?"
he said to me gloomily-but Carolyn was open to the idea. "You
know, we need to think big," she said. "Sometimes I imagine
a Hoberland, a place where everything transforms. There's a Legoland;
why not Hoberland?"
Now the toy-buying season is here again,
and, if this season is like others in recent memory, parents will
be lining up around the block, in the snow, outside Toys R Us, to
get a toy that, of the thousands of new toys released this year,
is the only toy that every child must have. The must-have toy is
the apotheosis of the marketing of toys as fashion accessories.
Will this year's must-have toy be Kasey the Kinderbot, a learning
toy from Fisher-Price, which, in addition to helping kids read and
write, also promises to teach them about manners, self-awareness,
and emotions-all for $39.88 at Wal-Mart? (Parents will presumably
be willing to spend more than twenty dollars for a toy that relieves
them of the responsibility of parenting.) Will it be the rare P-Rico
Plush doll, from the popular "Homies" series? Or will
it be the Sonic Sphere, from Hoberman Designs?
There was no must-have toy last year, or the year
before that; the last M.H.T. was Furby, a robotic feline, in 1998.
Some industry analysts, like Kurt Barnard, the publisher of Barnard's
Retail Trend Report, see this as evidence of the toy industry's
continuing slippage in its competition with video games-PlayStation
2 and Xbox were the M.H.T.s of the past couple of years. "What
the toy industry needs to figure out is how to make toys that are
as compelling as video games," Barnard told me. "Until
that happens, it's going to have problems." But another industry
observer, Christopher Byrne, an independent toy analyst, sometimes
known as "the Toy Guy," sees the decline of the must-have
toy as a sign that toy buyers are becoming more rational about toys.
"Parents have awakened to the fact that the toy they practically
killed themselves to get may not have had the appeal that they expected,"
he told me recently. "I can't argue with more than forty-four
million Furby toys sold, but how many of those did kids play with
for a long time?"
The Sonic Sphere is at Wal-Mart and Toys R Us
stores across the country, and the Hobermans are monitoring the
weekly numbers. "The volume isn't huge, but the trend is encouraging,"
Chuck said last month. "So far, it looks good."
Chuck also mentioned, to my surprise, that he'd
decided to take a SpongeBob license. "I know, I know, we're
selling out," he said with a smile, seeing my raised eyebrows.
"But the good thing about SpongeBob is that he can change his
shape whenever he wants, which fits nicely into our aesthetic."
He went on, "We're knocking around a couple of ideas, one of
which is an exploding SpongeBob head, or maybe a head that turns
into a pineapple."
Chuck spoke with a confidence that I had not heard
from him before. By following his lifelong interest in transformations,
I thought, he had himself been transformed-from an artist into a
toymaker. But I was wrong about that. Not long after we spoke, Chuck
changed his mind and dropped the SpongeBob idea. "A SpongeBob
toy might have made us some money, but it just wasn't what we're
really about," he explained. "I have to believe that there
really is a group of people-regular people shopping at Toys R Us
and Wal-Mart-who share this basic wonder that I have when they touch
a plastic linkage that somehow embodies the geometries that underlie
natural structures, regardless of whether Sponge-Bob or Spider-Man's
face is on the toy. There's no point in making a throwaway item
just because it might sell. There's got to be more to what we do
Copyright © John Seabrook 2004. All rights
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