In 1929 a tired, depressed toy salesman named Edwin Lowe set out on a nighttime drive from Atlanta, Georgia, to Jacksonville, Florida. On the way, he noticed the bright lights of a carnival; he decided to stop to investigate. Lowe found only one concession open—a tent full of people seated at tables, each with a handstamped, numbered card and a pile of beans. As the emcee called out numbers, players put beans on the corresponding squares on their cards. If they got five beans in a row, they won a Kewpie doll. The concessionaire called his game Beano. Lowe was so impressed that he tried it at his own home, where one young winner became so excited that she stammered out “B-b-bingo!” instead of “Beano.” So that’s what Lowe called it.
In the early ’60s, a chemist named Norman Stingley was experimenting with high-resiliency synthetics for the U.S. government when he discovered a compound he dubbed Zectron.
He was intrigued; when the material was fashioned into a ball, he found it retained almost 100% of its bounce…which meant it had six times the bounce of regular rubber balls. And a Zectron ball kept bouncing—about 10 times longer than a tennis ball. Stingley presented the discovery to his employer, the Bettis Rubber Company, but the firm had no use for it. So, in 1965, Stingley took his Zectron ball to Wham-O, the toy company that had created Hula Hoops and Frisbees. It was a profitable trip. Wham-O snapped up Stingley’s invention, called it a “Superball,” and sold 7 million of them in the next six months.
In the early 1960s, Reynolds Guyer worked at his family’s salespromotion company designing packages and displays. He also created premiums—the gifts people get for sending in boxtops and proofs-of-purchase. One day in 1965, the 29-year-old Guyer and his crew started work on a premium for a shoe polish company. “One idea,” he says, “was to have kids standing on this mat with squares that told them where to put their feet…but I thought, this is bigger than just a premium.” He expanded the mat to 4′ x 6′ and turned it into a game. “I got the secretaries and the designers and everyone together to play. You know, in 1965 no one ever touched. It really broke all the rules of propriety having people stand so close together.” At first it was a flop. No one knew what to make of a game where people were the main playing pieces. But when Johnny Carson and Eva Gabor played it on The Tonight Show in 1966, America got the point. Overnight, it became a runaway hit.