Wham-O Incorporated of Emeryville, California describes itself as a "global branded consumer products company with a diversified portfolio of innovative toys, sporting goods and recreational products", although it is best known the introduction of such iconic toys such as the Frisbee, the Hula Hoop and the SuperBall.
The Wham-O corporation was born in 1948 when two students from the University of Southern California named Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin decided to go into business together raising birds of prey. In order to train the birds to hunt they took to firing meatballs into the air using a homemade slingshot. When a potential customer turned up and announced "I don't want a bird, but I'd sure like a slingshot like that", they decided to abandon all thoughts of falconry, acquired a bandsaw from the Sears Roebuck catalogue, and began producing slingshots in a garage at Pasadena, California. They decided to adopt the name of Wham-O for both company and product, as "that's the sensation you felt when you hit something".
Although the company later diversified into producing similar sporting goods such as boomerangs and crossbows, their big break came in 1955, when they met Walter Morrison and licensed his development of a plastic flying disc named the Pluto Platter. After modifications this was renamed the Frisbee® disc in 1958, which rapidly became an American icon and one of the companies most profitable lines. It was also in 1958 that the company brought out the Hula Hoop®, a plastic hoop intended to be spun round the body, apparently inspired by reports that bamboo hoops were being used in this fashion as a form of exercise in Australia. The two founders personally promoted the Hula Hoop for months across the playgrounds of Southern California. (Although one suspects that the sight of two grown men handing out toys at children's playground would not necessarily play the same way in today's social climate.) During the resulting craze, some twenty-five million hoops were sold in four months, but the fad disappeared almost as soon as it had begun, and by November 1958 The Wall Street Journal announced that "Hoops have had it", and the company was left holding stocks of millions of unsold hoops and bearing a $10,000 loss.
Undeterred by such setbacks Wham-O continued to identify and develop a number of innovative activity toys in search of what Knerr liked to call the 'wow factor' and were unconcerned about the occasional failure, as according to Richard Knerr put it, "You can't tell whether the fish will bite if you don't drop a line in the water." However, the hit and miss nature of the company's product line meant that profits proved erratic; having made a profit of $370,000 in 1962, the company made a loss of $425,000 in 1963, before recovering to make a $387,000 profit in 1964. Their successes included such products as the Slip 'N Slide in 1961, the Wheelie Bar of 1964, a bicycle stabiliser which helped the rider rise on to one wheel, and the SuperBall in 1966 which was manufactured from vulcanized polybutadiene, a material first synthesized by Norman Stingley in 1965 and trademarked as Zectron. There is the (probably apocraphal) tale that a giant promotional version of the SuperBall was once dropped from a hotel window, bounced back fifteen floors, and then returned to ground and demolished a parked convertible. Other notable successes included such products as Silly String (1972), the Hacky Sack (1983) and the Bubble Thing (1988), a device that could allegedly make bubbles "as long as a bus".
Less succesful was the Air Blaster (1965), which could blow a candle out from range of twenty feet, Unfortunately this product was then withdrawn from the market due to fears that it could allegedly damage the ear drum if fired too close to the ear, apart from the fact that natural childhood curiousity inspired many to fire all kinds of potentially 'dangerous objects' from the Air Blaster, just in order to see if it was possible. It was eventually replaced by a gentler version marketed as the Huf'n Puf blowgun, which only shot rubber darts. Other notable but now largely forgotten Wham-O products included the Wham-O Instant Fish, the $119 do-it-yourself bomb shelter kit, and the Limbo Party Kit (introduced during the limbo dance craze of 1962). However even when the company guessed right its successes were soon copied by competitors. Indeed having inspired the sport once known as Ultimate Frisbee, and now known simply as Ultimate, and its spin-offs such as Disc Golf and Goaltimate, it has since found its position largely supplanted by other companies such as Discraft and Innova.
Richard Knerr and Arthur Melin eventually sold Wham-O to the Kransco Group for $12 million in 1982. Kransco subsequently sold the business to Mattel in 1994, and three years later in 1997 Mattel sold the business for $20 million to the Charterhouse Group, a private equity concern. The new independent Wham-O was based in Emeryville, California, although the main product development centre was in Hong Kong, with manufacturing outsourced to mainland China. The new owners put in a management team who were keen to to diversify the company away from its previous reliance on what might be termed outdoor activity toys, and so introduced a line of indoor recrecreation products, before acquiring the Snow, Surf and Sport product division of Earth and Ocean Sports in 2002, and in the following year similarly bought both Riva Sports and Rocky Mountain, owners of the Sea-Doo and Ski-Doo product licenses. In so doing they increased annual sales from $18 million to an estimated $80 million by 2005 which encouraged Charterhouse to put the business up for sale. On the 19th January 2006 it was announced that Wham-O had been sold to Cornerstone Overseas Investments Limited, a privately owned, Hong Kong-based worldwide manufacturer and distributor of toys, for an undisclosed sum believed to be less than the $80 million dollar asking price.
In 2003 Wham-O sued the makers of the largely forgotten film Dickie Roberts: Former Child Star. The company was upset by a scene in which the actor David Spade lubricated a Wham-O Slip 'N Slide with vegetable oil in order to improve its performance, and condemned such a practice as being "unauthorized" and "inappropriate". Nothing appears to have come of this case. Although one suspects that Wham-O was simply trying to protect itself from people who followed the movie's example and then sued Wham-O for failing to include instructions not to use vegetable oil with their Slip 'N Slide product after their progeny had plowed into the nearest fence-post. In 2007 Wham-O also sued SLB Toys USA Incorporated (also known as Manley-Toyquest or ToyQuest) for producing water slides that were also yellow, and was later awarded the sum of $6 million in damages in October 2007, having succesfully argued that it held the color trademark for yellow water slides.
- Paul Lukas, Fads And Frisbees, December 1, 2003
- Wham-O Official History