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A Brief History of the Magic 8 Ball

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Since the 1950s, generation after generation of children have turned to one object to provide answers to the more burning yes/no questions of life: the Magic 8 Ball. But was the Magic 8 Ball always intended as a children’s fortune-telling toy? And why, of all things, is it shaped like a billiard ball?

If you were to grab the Magic 8 Ball off your desk right now and ask it “Will this article answer all those questions and more?” the words “Without a Doubt” would hopefully emerge through the murky blue liquid. However, with mathematical probability taken into consideration, this might not be the case; after consulting Dr. Lucien Cohen, a psychology professor at the University of Cincinnati, the creators of the Magic 8 Ball decided upon 20 possible responses: 10 positive, five negative, and five indifferent.

IT BEGAN WITH A CLAIRVOYANT’S SON ...

From an early age, Albert C. Carter, the son of a Cincinnati clairvoyant, found himself surrounded by all things mystical. As his mother Mary’s popularity as a medium increased, so too did Albert’s interest in her work. In particular, he—like the majority of her clients—was fascinated by one of her fortune-telling inventions: the Psycho-Slate.

The Psycho-Slate consisted of a small chalkboard that could be placed inside of a sealed container. While with a client, Mary would close the lid of the container and ask a question aloud to the “other world.” To her clients’ amazement, the room would fill with the sounds of chalk scribbling across the board. When the scratchings died down, Mary would then open the container to reveal the answer as dictated by the spirits. While no one is quite sure exactly how Mary achieved the results, it is safe to say that this inspired Albert to create his own version of the Psycho-Slate—one that didn’t require any psychic ability.

In 1944, Carter completed the device that he would call the Syco-Seer. The result was a liquid-filled tube, divided in the center. On each end, a clear window allowed a view of the worded dice Carter had placed in each half. By turning the tube upright, one die would slowly raise through the viscous liquid, revealing a response to the user’s question. (In his book, Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them, author Tim Walsh claims that Carter used molasses early on.)

Feeling confident in the Syco-Seer, Carter presented the prototype to a local Cincinnati store owner, Max Levinson. Levinson immediately took to the idea, so much so that he expressed an interest in working with Carter to mass-produce the Syco-Seer. To accomplish this, Levinson contacted his brother-in-law, Abe Bookman.

ALONG CAME BOOKMAN

Abe Bookman, or Buchmann as he was known before the Anglicization of his name in 1955, was a first-generation American born to Russian Jewish parents. A smart and business-savvy man, Bookman graduated from the Ohio Mechanics Institute in 1921. Because of this, Carter and Levinson turned to Bookman to handle the logistics of producing the Syco-Seer on a larger scale.

They formed a novelty company, Alabe Crafts, Inc. (a combination of Abe and Albert’s first names) in 1946. Under Bookman’s guidance, Alabe Crafts produced and marketed the Syco-Seer as a “Miracle Home Fortune-Teller.”

Though Carter had applied for a patent for his “Liquid Filled Dice Agitator” on September 23, 1944, he unfortunately didn’t live to see it granted in 1948. While it is unclear what became of Carter in his final years or exactly when he died, most sources state the cause of his troubles stemmed from his “gypsy lifestyle” and alcoholism. Luckily for Alabe Crafts, Carter had shared the patent assignment credit with Bookman and Levinson.

REDESIGNS, RE-MARKETING, AND THE BIRTH OF THE MAGIC 8 BALL

Following Carter’s passing, Bookman spearheaded a redesign of the Syco-Seer. In order to reduce to cost of production, Bookman removed one end of the tube, turning it into a smaller, single-windowed viewer. With this slimming change, Bookman decided to rebrand the Syco-Seer as the Syco-Slate: The Pocket Fortune Teller.

In 1948, Bookman opted for another redesign, this time in an attempt to tie in a marketing theme; he placed the Syco-Slate tube inside a crystal ball. While this did nothing to improve sales, it garnered the attention of Brunswick Billiards who, in 1950, were on the lookout for a fun item to use as a potential giveaway to promote their Chicago-based billiards company.

Bookman jumped at the opportunity. He changed the design once again, replacing the crystal ball with the iconic black 8 ball we know today. Once the promotion had ended and Bookman’s contract with Brunswick was fulfilled, he decided to keep the 8 ball design, energized by the success of the giveaway.

Bookman then went on to market the Magic 8 Ball as a paperweight. It wasn’t until he noticed the 8 Ball’s popularity among children that Bookman decided to re-market the product as a toy. With this, the Magic 8 Ball quickly found its footing.

In 1971, Bookman sold Alabe Crafts and the Magic 8 Ball to Ideal Toys. Today, the Ball is owned by Mattel, who claims to sell a million Magic 8 Balls every year. In 2011, TIME Magazine named the Magic 8 Ball as one of the “All-TIME 100 Greatest Toys.”

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Pop Culture
An AI Program Wrote Harry Potter Fan Fiction—and the Results Are Hilarious
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Andreas Rentz/Getty Images

“The castle ground snarled with a wave of magically magnified wind.”

So begins the 13th chapter of the latest Harry Potter installment, a text called Harry Potter and the Portrait of What Looked Like a Large Pile of Ash. OK, so it’s not a J.K. Rowling original—it was written by artificial intelligence. As The Verge explains, the computer-science whizzes at Botnik Studios created this three-page work of fan fiction after training an algorithm on the text of all seven Harry Potter books.

The short chapter was made with the help of a predictive text algorithm designed to churn out phrases similar in style and content to what you’d find in one of the Harry Potter novels it "read." The story isn’t totally nonsensical, though. Twenty human editors chose which AI-generated suggestions to put into the chapter, wrangling the predictive text into a linear(ish) tale.

While magnified wind doesn’t seem so crazy for the Harry Potter universe, the text immediately takes a turn for the absurd after that first sentence. Ron starts doing a “frenzied tap dance,” and then he eats Hermione’s family. And that’s just on the first page. Harry and his friends spy on Death Eaters and tussle with Voldemort—all very spot-on Rowling plot points—but then Harry dips Hermione in hot sauce, and “several long pumpkins” fall out of Professor McGonagall.

Some parts are far more simplistic than Rowling would write them, but aren’t exactly wrong with regards to the Harry Potter universe. Like: “Magic: it was something Harry Potter thought was very good.” Indeed he does!

It ends with another bit of prose that’s not exactly Rowling’s style, but it’s certainly an accurate analysis of the main current that runs throughout all the Harry Potter books. It reads: “‘I’m Harry Potter,’ Harry began yelling. ‘The dark arts better be worried, oh boy!’”

Harry Potter isn’t the only work of fiction that Jamie Brew—a former head writer for ClickHole and the creator of Botnik’s predictive keyboard—and other Botnik writers have turned their attention to. Botnik has previously created AI-generated scripts for TV shows like The X-Files and Scrubs, among other ridiculous machine-written parodies.

To delve into all the magical fiction that Botnik users have dreamed up, follow the studio on Twitter.

[h/t The Verge]

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Netflix's Most-Binged Shows of 2017, Ranked
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Netflix might know your TV habits better than you do. Recently, the entertainment company's normally tight-lipped number-crunchers looked at user data collected between November 1, 2016 and November 1, 2017 to see which series people were powering through and which ones they were digesting more slowly. By analyzing members’ average daily viewing habits, they were able to determine which programs were more likely to be “binged” (or watched for more than two hours per day) and which were more often “savored” (or watched for less than two hours per day) by viewers.

They found that the highest number of Netflix bingers glutted themselves on the true crime parody American Vandal, followed by the Brazilian sci-fi series 3%, and the drama-mystery 13 Reasons Why. Other shows that had viewers glued to the couch in 2017 included Anne with an E, the Canadian series based on L. M. Montgomery's 1908 novel Anne of Green Gables, and the live-action Archie comics-inspired Riverdale.

In contrast, TV shows that viewers enjoyed more slowly included the Emmy-winning drama The Crown, followed by Big Mouth, Neo Yokio, A Series of Unfortunate Events, GLOW, Friends from College, and Ozark.

There's a dark side to this data, though: While the company isn't around to judge your sweatpants and the chip crumbs stuck to your couch, Netflix is privy to even your most embarrassing viewing habits. The company recently used this info to publicly call out a small group of users who turned their binges into full-fledged benders:

Oh, and if you're the one person in Antarctica binging Shameless, the streaming giant just outed you, too.

Netflix broke down their full findings in the infographic below and, Big Brother vibes aside, the data is pretty fascinating. It even includes survey data on which shows prompted viewers to “Netflix cheat” on their significant others and which shows were enjoyed by the entire family.

Netflix infographic "The Year in Bingeing"
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