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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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How Urban Legends Like 'The Licked Hand' Are Born
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If you compare the scary stories you heard as a kid with those of your friends—even those who grew up across the country from you—you’ll probably hear some familiar tales. Maybe you tried to summon Bloody Mary by chanting her name in front of the mirror three times in a dark bathroom. Maybe you learned never to wonder what’s under a woman’s neck ribbon. Maybe you heard the one about the girl who feels her dog lick her hand in the middle of the night, only to wake up to find him hanging dead from the shower nozzle, the words “humans can lick too” written on the wall in the dog’s blood.

These ubiquitous, spooky folk tales exist everywhere, and a lot of them take surprisingly similar forms. How does a single story like the one often called “Humans Can Lick Too” or "The Licked Hand" make its way into every slumber party in America? Thrillist recently investigated the question with a few experts, finding that most of these stories have very deep roots.

In the case of The Licked Hand, its origins go back more than a century. In the 1990s, Snopes found that a similar motif dates back to an Englishman’s diary entry from 1871. In it, the diary keeper, Dearman Birchall, retold a story he heard at a party of a man whose wife woke him up in the middle of the night, urging him to go investigate what sounded like burglars in their home. He told his wife that it was only the dog, reaching out his hand. He felt the dog lick his hand … but in the morning, all his valuables were gone: He had clearly been robbed.

A similar theme shows up in the short story “The Diary of Mr. Poynter,” published in 1919 by M.R. James. In it, a character dozes off in an armchair, and thinks that he is petting his dog. It turns out, it’s some kind of hairy human figure that he flees from. The story seems to have evolved from there into its presently popular form, picking up steam in the 1960s. As with any folk tale, its exact form changes depending on the teller: sometimes the main character is an old lady, other times it’s a young girl.

You’ll probably hear these stories in the context of happening to a “friend of a friend,” making you more likely to believe the tale. It practically happened to someone you know! Kind of! The setting, too, is probably somewhere nearby. It might be in your neighborhood, or down by the local railroad tracks.

Thrillist spoke to Dr. Joseph Stubbersfield, a researcher in the UK who studies urban legends, who says the kind of stories that spread widely contain both social information and emotional resonance. Meaning they contain a message—you never know who’s lurking in your house—and are evocative.

If something is super scary or gross, you want to share it. Stories tend to warn against something: A study of English-language urban legends circulating online found that most warned listeners about the hazards of life (poisonous plants, dangerous animals, dangerous humans) rather than any kind of opportunities. We like to warn each other of the dangers that could be lurking around every corner, which makes sense considering our proven propensity to focus on and learn from negative information. And yes, that means telling each other to watch out for who’s licking our hands in the middle of the night.

Just something to keep in mind as you eagerly await Jezebel’s annual scary story contest.

[h/t Thrillist]

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Inside This Pop-Up Book Are a Planetarium, a Speaker, a Decoder Ring, and More
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Courtesy Chronicle Books

Designer Kelli Anderson's new book is for more than just reading. This Book Is a Planetarium is really a collection of paper gadgets. With each thick, card stock page you turn, another surprise pops out.

"This book concisely explains—and actively demonstrates with six functional pop-up paper contraptions—the science at play in our everyday world," the book's back cover explains. It turns out, there's a whole lot you can do with a few pieces of paper and a little bit of imagination.

A book is open to reveal a spiralgraph inside.
Courtesy Chronicle Books

There's the eponymous planetarium, a paper dome that you can use with your cell phone's flashlight to project constellations onto the ceiling. There's a conical speaker, which you can use to amplify a smaller music player. There's a spiralgraph you can use to make geometric designs. There's a basic cipher you can use to encode and decode secret messages, and on its reverse side, a calendar. There's a stringed musical instrument you can play on. All are miniature, functional machines that can expand your perceptions of what a simple piece of paper can become.

The cover of This Book Is a Planetarium
Courtesy Chronicle Books

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