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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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Fearless Man Slices 26 Watermelons on His Stomach in 60 Seconds, Setting New Record
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Ashrita Furman, a 63-year-old New Yorker who holds the world record for setting the most Guinness World Records, just achieved another one. This time, it was for the most watermelons sliced on top of his stomach in 60 seconds, Nerdist reports.

Furman came up with the idea for the record himself, and while he didn’t have any competition, Guinness stipulated that he had to slice at least 20 watermelons to be recognized. He managed to cut through 26 melons with his tool of choice, a katana, in less than a minute. (He walked away without a scratch.)

Check out this spectacle (and serious ab workout) for yourself:

“I’m really thrilled,” Furman told Reuters after pulling off the feat. “My first reaction is I’m relieved that I didn’t kill myself and the second is that I’m exhilarated because it is not only a skillful record, but also it’s something that I invented and now it’s out there and other people can challenge it.”

Furman, who has been called “Mr. Versatility,” currently holds more than 200 Guinness records. He set his very first record in 1979 after completing 27,000 jumping jacks, and he hasn’t slowed down since. In the past near-40 years he has set the record for—among other feats—the most knives caught in a minute (54); the greatest distance traveled while juggling on a pogo stick (4 miles, 30 feet); and most grapes caught in his mouth in one minute (86).

[h/t Nerdist]

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Courtesy of Shout! Factory
No Strings Attached: The Puppet Satire of D.C. Follies
Courtesy of Shout! Factory
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

At one corner of the bar, Jack Nicholson is seducing Margaret Thatcher. At another, Richard Nixon is reconsidering the sins of his presidency. Before the night is out, Sylvester Stallone, Oliver North, and Dan Rather will all make appearances, each sporting slightly exaggerated features and misshapen heads.

For two seasons between 1987 and 1989, a fictional Washington, D.C. bar was the setting for this unlikely assembly of political and entertainment figures cast in foam and orbiting around the show’s only regular human performer, actor Fred Willard. D.C. Follies might have been the most peculiar thing to come from the minds of famed television duo Sid and Marty Krofft, and when the hallucinogenic H.R. Pufnstuf is on their resume, that’s saying something.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

The satirical, syndicated half-hour series might not have been paying licensing fees to the UK’s ITV network, but there’s a good argument for why they should have. In 1984, the channel began airing Spitting Image, a sharp, cutting take on world affairs created by Peter Fluck and Roger Law that used hypnotically repugnant puppets to represent political figures and members of the British royal family. The altered reality allowed for skewering, with jokes and actions that would have seemed too mean-spirited in live-action made permissible by the fact that they were embodied by living caricatures. In one sketch, then-Prime Minister Thatcher wondered why the poor didn’t just “eat their own bodies,” while newspaper employees at reputed tabloid outlets were depicted as literal pigs. At the height of its popularity, Spitting Image was viewed by 18 million viewers weekly.

Although other UK comedy exports like Monty Python's Flying Circus had found success with American audiences, Spitting Image was strikingly topical and resonated best with British audiences. A series of American-oriented specials for NBC that aired in 1986 and 1987 did well, but not well enough to commit to a series. At the same time, Sid and Marty Krofft—who had made their last name synonymous with Saturday morning kid TV culture in the 1970s—were working on a show that would emulate Fluck and Law’s approach. Thatcher would take a back seat to Oliver North, Dan Quayle, and other sometimes scandalous figures in then-contemporary U.S. politics. With Willard cast as the bartender, D.C. Follies got picked up in 90 markets for syndication beginning in September 1987.

The Kroffts had experience with parody puppets, having crafted Elvis Presley in felt as far back as the 1950s and mounting an elaborate live show, Les Poupées de Paris (The Dolls of Paris), that featured topless puppets. Not quite as appalling in appearance as the Spitting Image cast, the near-life-size foam stand-ins cost between $1500 and $3000 apiece. Political cartoonists like Bob Myers, who contributed to the New York Daily News, would offer a design that puppet makers could use as inspiration for a sculpt. People with easily identifiable features, like the drooping lip of Stallone or the shock of bright red hair sported by Jim Bakker's mistress Jessica Hahn, were ideal.

Unlike Fluck and Law, who typically targeted elected officials, the Kroffts had to be more cautious when it came to legal consequences. While political figures were largely powerless to complain or litigate over puppet counterparts, celebrities tended to exercise more caution over their likeness. D.C. Follies got away with using Woody Allen, Dolly Parton, and a host of others, but Frank Sinatra threatened to sue if he showed up cast in foam. The show eventually added a disclaimer at the end reminding viewers it was meant to be taken in jest.

There was also the challenge of remaining topical in a fast-moving news cycle. Unlike most scripted series, D.C. Follies was taped just three days prior to air to avoid time-worn jokes. Marty Krofft told the press that a puppet could be crafted in just 36 hours if needed, making it easier for them to comment on that week’s headlines.

D.C. Follies premiered the weekend of September 26 and 27, 1987, an auspicious debut for a syndicated offering: It was the same weekend Star Trek: The Next Generation began airing. Often on late at night and sometimes opposite Saturday Night Live, Follies invited a number of human guest stars—Martin Mull was the first—who tried not to be upstaged by the vaguely disfigured effigies surrounding them. Marty Krofft allegedly recruited some guests simply by threatening to make a mocking puppet of them if they didn’t agree to appear.

A screen capture from the 'D.C. Follies' television series
Courtesy of Shout! Factory

Each week, Willard—who was apparently hired for his ability to make conversing with puppets seem plausible—lent a sympathetic ear to the problems expressed by his satirical patrons. The blend of characters and real guests made for some odd pairings: The real Mike Tyson once appeared to box a puppet George Bush. Freddy Krueger (Robert Englund in his familiar makeup) saddled up to the bar to help plug a new Nightmare on Elm Street movie. Krueger's nightmare: Quayle becoming president.

Mostly, though, the puppets walked in and out of frame in non-sequitur sketches. John Madden might accost Pope John Paul II; Jimmy Carter, Richard Nixon, and Gerald Ford were seen playing Trivial Pursuit, with Nixon admitting his Presidential Library was a Bookmobile; Madonna, Sean Penn, Jesse Jackson, Ted Koppel, and dozens of others also passed through.

Follies earned a second season while still filming its first, but ratings were never strong enough to warrant a third. (Late last year, Shout! Factory released the full series on DVD.) The Kroffts went on to produce similar puppet productions like Red Eye Express and Krofft Late Night. Nothing, however, seemed to endure quite like Spitting Image, which ran for 12 years in the UK and is currently being considered for a U.S.-based revival. Based on today’s political climate, there should be no shortage of material.

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