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12 Kooky Facts About Koosh Balls

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Kids of the late ‘80s and ‘90s (and, of course, Rosie O'Donnell) loved their Koosh balls. They were easy to catch, easy to throw, and didn't hurt nearly as much as traditional balls when you got hit by one. Here are a few things you might not have known about the weird, wonderful toy.

1. THE INVENTOR CREATED KOOSH BALLS BECAUSE HIS KIDS COULDN'T MASTER PLAYING CATCH.

In 1986, engineer Scott Stillinger was having trouble teaching his two young kids how to play catch. Balls were too bouncy, and bean bags too heavy. The California resident soon realized he needed a better ball—one that was soft, wouldn’t bounce, and could be grasped easily. “I intuitively knew that a rubber-filament ball would do the trick, so I set out to try to find a way to make that,” Stillinger told The Christian Science Monitor in 1989. He started with a box of rubber bands and then refined the design of his energy-absorbent ball, eventually settling on natural rubber latex in non-toxic colors.

2. STILLINGER WAS SO CONFIDENT ABOUT KOOSH THAT HE QUIT HIS JOB TO MAKE THEM—AND HE WASN’T THE ONLY ONE.  

In late 1986, Stillinger showed a prototype of the ball to his brother-in-law, Mark Button, who’d worked in marketing at Mattel. The men—and their wives—were confident enough in the product to quit their jobs and start a toy company called OddzOn Products. Stillinger later called their early prototypes “crude ... When I look back at how crude they were compared to where we are today, we were crazy.” But when they showed the ball to a store owner, she told them, "You're going to be millionaires.” Stillinger built the machine that would make the balls and operated it out of a barn near his house.

3. STILLINGER FILED FOR A PATENT IN 1987.

Google Patents

The patent, which was granted in 1988, outlined the issues with regular balls:

“One of the problems with many conventional throwing/catching devices is that, on impact, they do not absorb much energy, and accordingly, tend to bounce and get away from one's grasp easily. Also, they sometimes hurt to catch. Another problem is that, typically, they do not offer a surface configuration that promotes quick, sure gripping.”

Their ball—“an amusement device which has a substantially spherical configuration, and which is formed from a large plurality of floppy, elastomeric filaments that radiate in a dense, bushy manner from a central core region”—would “avoid these significant disadvantages in a very practical and satisfactory manner”:

“The filaments are sufficiently floppy to collapse on impact, thus to absorb enough energy to avoid any tendency to bounce. They are also sufficiently dense and floppy that they tend to quickly thread their way between the fingers of a user on contact with the hand. These features promote sure and quick capture of the device during the act of catching.”

4. STILLINGER AND BUTTON HAD MORE THAN 200 OPTIONS FOR THE NAME.

Stillinger told People in 1989 that "Through a process of surveys and logic, we decided on Koosh.” According to The Secret History of Balls, the duo started with more than 200 names before asking kids and adults to pick their favorite from a list of finalists. The ball is also said to be named after the sound it makes when caught.

5. A STANDARD KOOSH IS MADE OF 2000 RUBBER FILAMENTS.

Placed end to end, the filaments on each 3-inch-diameter ball stretch more than 300 feet. The filaments have a nickname, by the way: Stillinger and Button called them “feelers.”

6. THE MEDIA MADE FUN OF THE BALL, AND THE INDUSTRY DIDN’T GET IT—BUT CUSTOMERS LOVED IT.

According to The Secret Life of Balls, “The media reveled in making fun of the soft ball. A Sports Illustrated writer compared the Koosh to a Star Trek tribble, while another reporter likened it to a ‘psychedelic sea urchin.’” Koosh balls were also called “The Pet Rock of the ‘80s.” Worse, some people in the industry just didn’t get it: One retailer even thought the filaments were defects and began cutting them off.

But in the end, those reactions didn’t matter much. The Koosh ball hit shelves in 1987, and by 1988, the ball—which a PR person for OddzOn described as a “cross between a porcupine and a bowl of Jell-O”—was a Christmastime bestseller. The next year, it was in 14,000 toy stores across the country and available in 20 countries around the world. Stillinger and Button were creating more versions of their popular ball, which would eventually be available in three varieties: Regular, fuzzy (which had twice as many filaments as the regular), and Mondo, which was the size of a grapefruit.

In 1990, Stillinger said that he and Button were “surprised by the extent of [Koosh’s] success,” which was accomplished without spending money on consumer advertising. Koosh balls benefited from placement next to registers—where customers couldn’t resist picking them up—and word of mouth. Soon, it was appearing in a Kansas community college’s physics class and in physical therapy sessions. There was even a fan club that would mail Koosh product suggestions to OddzOn.

7. THE TOY HAD ITS OWN BOOK …

Published in 1989, The Official Koosh Book featured 33 “Kooshy Activities,” including a form of tag called “Koosh Attack” and games like “Lakroosh,” “Hopskoosh,” and “Kooshy Kooshy Koo.”

8. … AND A SHORT-LIVED COMIC BOOK SERIES.


Koosh Kins—a comic book about six living Kooshes (Grinby, Boingo, GeeGee, Slats, T.K. and Scopes) produced by Archie Comics—debuted in 1991. The series ran for just a few issues and was, of course, accompanied by a toy line of Koosh balls with faces and hands.

9. THERE WAS A LOT OF SECRECY SURROUNDING KOOSH.

Or at least where it was made: According to a 1990 newspaper article, OddzOn Products was so wary of competitors stealing its secrets that it kept the exact location of its Silicon Valley manufacturing plant a secret.

10. RUTH BADER GINSBURG WEIGHED IN ON KOOSH COPYRIGHT.

When the U.S. Copyright Office declined to copyright the Koosh ball in 1988, OddzOn sued, calling the decision “arbitrary, capricious, and an abuse of discretion.” By 1991, the case had reached future Supreme Court Justice and Notorious RBG Ruth Bader Ginsburg, then a circuit judge for the U.S. Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C. In her decision, Ginsburg noted that “OddzOn sought copyright registration for the KOOSH ball to block importation of less expensive ‘knockoffs,” but that the Court couldn’t make a decision about the ball’s copyright:

“We again emphasize that we decide simply and only that the refusal of the Copyright Office to register the KOOSH ball, in the circumstances here presented, does not constitute an abuse of discretion. We do not decide on the copyrightability of the item, and we intimate no opinion on the decision we would reach if the matter came before us in an infringement action.”

Why couldn't the court make a decision about copyright? The issue was whether or not the functionality of the ball was inseparable from the utilitarian aspect of it. In U.S. law, and as Ginsberg noted in her ruling, it’s only possible to copyright things that can be identified separately from, and are capable of existing independently of, the utilitarian aspects of the article.” The Copyright Office felt that the Koosh ball’s looks and functionality were inseparable from the function—and, therefore, uncopyrightable.

11. STILLINGER AND BUTTON SOLD THE COMPANY IN 1994.

When the duo decided to sell OddzOn in 1994 to the New Jersey Company Russ Berrie and Co., they had sold 50 million Koosh balls and were making an estimated $30 million a year; the Koosh line consisted of 50 products, including key chains, finned footballs, and lawn darts. Hasbro purchased the company in 1997.

12. A WOMAN SUED AFTER GETTING HIT IN THE FACE WITH A KOOSH BALL ON ROSIE O’DONNELL’S TALK SHOW.

In 2001, 69-year-old Lucille DeBellis went to a taping of The Rosie O’Donnell Show. She was sitting in the studio audience when, according to the details of her lawsuit (as reported in the The New York Post), she was “suddenly and without warning struck in the face with a hard object”—a Koosh ball, which O’Donnell and her staff often shot out in the audience with the help of a Koosh-throwing device known as the Fling Shot.

Two years later, DeBellis filed a $3 million lawsuit against the producers of the show, claiming that “The Cuzball [sic] struck plaintiff squarely in the mouth, causing her to suffer pain and swelling, as well as bleeding in her gums.” The effects of the hit were long lasting, according to the lawsuit:

“[B]ecause of her physical discomfort and embarrassment with regard to her appearance, [DeBellis] was forced to spend the duration of the 2001 Christmas season in her home and turned down many opportunities to attend holiday parties and various social events … [It] adversely affected [her] relationship with her boyfriend.”

DeBellis settled with Warner Bros. and Time Warner Cable in 2004.

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These Sparrows Have Been Singing the Same Songs for 1500 Years
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Swamp sparrows are creatures of habit—so much so that they’ve been chirping out the same few tunes for more than 1500 years, Science magazine reports.

These findings, published in the journal Nature Communications, resulted from an analysis of the songs of 615 adult male swamp sparrows found in six different areas of the northeastern U.S. Researchers learned that young swamp sparrows pick up these songs from the adults around them and are able to mimic the notes with astounding accuracy.

Here’s what one of their songs sounds like:

“We were able to show that swamp sparrows very rarely make mistakes when they learn their songs, and they don't just learn songs at random; they pick up commoner songs rather than rarer songs,” Robert Lachlan, a biologist at London’s Queen Mary University and the study’s lead author, tells National Geographic.

Put differently, the birds don’t mimic every song their elders crank out. Instead, they memorize the ones they hear most often, and scientists say this form of “conformist bias” was previously thought to be a uniquely human behavior.

Using acoustic analysis software, researchers broke down each individual note of the sparrows’ songs—160 different syllables in total—and discovered that only 2 percent of sparrows deviated from the norm. They then used a statistical method to determine how the songs would have evolved over time. With recordings from 2009 and the 1970s, they were able to estimate that the oldest swamp sparrow songs date back 1537 years on average.

The swamp sparrow’s dedication to accuracy sets the species apart from other songbirds, according to researchers. “Among songbirds, it is clear that some species of birds learn precisely, such as swamp sparrows, while others rarely learn all parts of a demonstrator’s song precisely,” they write.

According to the Audubon Guide to North American Birds, swamp sparrows are similar to other sparrows, like the Lincoln’s sparrow, song sparrow, and chipping sparrow. They’re frequently found in marshes throughout the Northeast and Midwest, as well as much of Canada. They’re known for their piercing call notes and may respond to birders who make loud squeaking sounds in their habitat.

[h/t Science magazine]

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18 Smart Products To Help You Kick Off Summer
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Whether you’re trying to spiff up your backyard barbeque or cultivate your green thumb, these summertime gadgets will help you celebrate the season from solstice to the dog days.

1. ROSÉ WINE GLASSES; $60

Rosé Wine Glass
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Wine not? When the temperature rises and beer isn’t your thing, reach for the rosé. Riedel’s machine-blown SST (see, smell, taste) wine glasses will give the sparkly stuff ample room to breathe, making every refreshing sip worthwhile.

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2. NERF N-STRIKE ELITE SURGEFIRE; $25

Nerf SurgeFire
Hasbro

Why It’s Cool: The N-Strike Elite SurgeFire (say that five-times-fast) sports a pump-action rotating drum for maximum foam-based firepower and holds up to 15 Nerf darts in its arsenal.

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3. BUSHEL & BERRY PLANTS; $34

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Why It’s Cool: You don’t need to have a green thumb to create a brag-worthy garden this summer. Besides producing snackable mid-season berries, these open-growing bushes can be planted immediately for easy set-up to make you look like a botanical pro.

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4. INFLATABLE DONUT; $17

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Why It’s Cool: When the only dunking you’re doing is taking a dip in the pool, a 48-inch inflatable donut is the perfect way to stay afloat.

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5. STAR SPANGLED SPATULA; $21

American flag spatula
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: O say can you see by your grill’s charcoal light / Meats so proudly we cooked ... with a star spangled spatula. Depending on the specific model, these all-American grilling tools (designed in New Jersey and made in Chicago) are made of a combination of walnut and stainless steel or nylon. As an added bonus: 5 percent of the proceeds go to the Penn Abramson Cancer Center.

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6. MLB HOT DOG BRANDERS; $8 AND UP

MLB San Diego Padres Hot Dog BBQ Brander
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Why It’s Cool: Take your hot dogs, sausages, brats, and more out to the ballgame without ever leaving your grill. These branders from Pangea Brands are dishwasher-safe and made of ceramic-coated cast iron.

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7. UNA GRILL; $139

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MoMA Shop

Why It’s Cool: This portable charcoal-heated grill is as efficient as it is stylish. The compact size lets you cook at the park, after hitting up MoMA, or anywhere in between.

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8. HAMBURGER GRILLING BASKET; $21


Why It’s Cool: Made of steel and finished with a non-stick coating, this grilling tool flips four burgers at once and maintains perfect burger proportions to guarantee nobody stays hungry for long.

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9. COPPER FIRE PIT; $121

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: The grill isn’t the only place for a roaring fire this summer. This 100 percent solid copper fire pit makes for the perfect gathering spot at your next BBQ, or just to warm up after a cool summer evening.

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10. BENDY STRAW POOL NOODLE FLOAT; $10

Bendy Straw Inflatable Pool Float
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Why It’s Cool: Inflatable pool floats shouldn’t be boring, and this bendy straw float definitely does not suck. This unique spin on traditional pool noodles is sure to make for some cheesy jokes, but at least you’ll be comfortable floating in the pool or at the beach.

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11. GRIDDLER DELUXE; $111

Cuisinart GR-150 Griddler Deluxe
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Why It’s Cool: If you’re looking for some serious panini power, this griddler offers up a versatile lineup of six cooking options in one. And with dual-zone functions you can sling burgers while searing filets and sautéeing vegetables all at the same time.

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12. VINTAGE SNOW CONE MAKER; $30

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Why It’s Cool: With its old-timey design, dual cone shelf, and endless flavor options, this snow cone maker is guaranteed create a cool treat.

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13. DACHSHUND CORN ON THE COB HOLDERS; $7

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Why It’s Cool: While meat-lovers will inevitably scarf down a lot of hot dogs this summer, vegetarians who happen to love another kind of dog will be smitten with these stainless steel, Dachshund-shaped corn on the cob prongs. They’re a fun spin on a summer grilling favorite.

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14. ICE CREAM SANDWICH MAKER; $16

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Why It’s Cool: Four sandwiches are better than one, especially when they're of the ice cream variety. Make four ice cream sandwiches at once with this homemade spin on a classic cold treat.

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15. UE WONDERBOOM; $68

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Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Besides delicious food and great company, some memorable tunes are required for the quintessential barbeque. This portable bluetooth speaker offers up some booming sound in a small package, and with a battery power of 10 hours on a single charge you can keep the party going all night.

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16. ROLLORS GAME; $38

Rollors Backyard Game
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: When you’re sick of bocce, hate horseshoes, and you’re over cornhole, you might want to take up “rollors,” a family-friendly game that combines your favorite traditional backyard festivities into one game for people of all ages.

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17. HAMMOCK; $174

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Why It’s Cool: Rest easy knowing that this 100 percent hand-woven and hand-dyed cotton hammock contributes to artisan job-creation in Thailand.

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18. VSSL SURVIVAL ESSENTIALS; $59

Emergency Survival Tent Outdoors
Amazon

Why It’s Cool: Compact, convenient, and durable, the VSSL Shelter can come in handy when things don’t go quite as planned. The device—which features a lightweight emergency shelter all within the handle of a compact, weather-resistant aluminum LED flashlight—is designed to keep you safe under the worst conditions.

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