In the 1980s, executive desk toys were a super-hip phenomenon. If you had a desk, you had to have Newton's cradle, or perhaps Pin Art. But digging deeper into the desk toy world, you'll find oddball items like the Seiko Executive Egg. It's a plastic egg mashed up with a voice recorder. But because it's from the early 1980s, it records the voice using a tape recorder head on a magnetic disc, much like those used in floppy diskettes.
Tune in to this video for a thorough investigation of the egg and its guts—including a repair job.
In the fall of 1923, street vendors in Santa Barbara, California received an unexpected bit of attention regarding one of their more popular wares: The San Francisco Chroniclewrote about the sellers' “freakish little brown seeds” that “cavorted about to the edification and delight of children and grownups."
Those “freakish” seeds were (and still are) known as Mexican jumping beans. Part novelty item and part entomology lesson, they’ve been a staple of street vendors, carnival workers, and comic book ads for nearly a century, thanks to their somewhat inexplicable agility. Some early theories posited that the beans moved because of electrostatic charging, or because of tiny gas explosions inside—but in reality, it was a larva living in the bean. In Santa Barbara, the local Humane Society was concerned that the tiny caterpillar was somehow suffering in the heat; a police sergeant confiscated several of the seeds and took them home to investigate.
THE BEAN MYTH
In truth, the bean is not really a bean at all but a seed pod. In the spring, adult moths deposit their eggs into the flower of the yerba de flecha (Sebastiana pavoniana) shrub, which is native to the mountains of northwestern Mexico. The hatched larvae nestle into the plant's seed pods, which fall off the tree, taking the larvae inside with them.
Each larva is quite content to remain in its little biosphere until it enters its pupal stage and eventually bores a hole to continue life as a moth. (But only when it’s good and ready: If the pod develops a hole before then, the caterpillar will repair it using natural webbing it makes.) The pod is porous and the larvae can eat the interior for nourishment. Metabolic water creates moisture for the larva, but it never needs to pee. Essentially, it's the ultimate in downsized efficiency living.
When it's in the pod, the larva isn’t exactly dormant: It twists and contorts itself to create encapsulated movement, almost like the snap of a rubber band. When it moves, so does the pod. No one is exactly sure why they do this, though some believe it's to keep the pod from settling on a hot surface (as high temperatures can be deadly to the insect).
The larva will keep up this activity for six to eight weeks. If a pod appears lifeless and rattles when shaken, it’s probably dead. If it lives, it will go dormant in winter before creating an escape hatch in the spring and flying off to begin life as a moth.
It’s hard to know who exactly first decided to begin hawking the “beans” for amusement purposes, though some credit an enterprising man named Joaquin Hernandez with popularizing them in novelty shops in the 1940s. Later, in the 1960s, Joy Clement of Chaparral Novelties noticed the beans after her husband, a candy wholesaler, brought them home from a business trip. Though she was initially confounded by their appeal, Clement agreed to distribute the pods and watched them grow into a significant success: Between 1962 and 1994, Chaparral shipped 3 to 5 million of them each year, and saw the bean transition from sidewalk dealers to major chains like KB Toys.
“There's not much you can buy at a retail store that can give you this kind of satisfaction for under a buck," one bean dealer told the Los Angeles Times in 1994. "It's one of the last of the low-end entertainments available in the world.”
Interest in the beans seems to come in waves, though that can sometimes depend on the weather in Mexico. The jumping bean's unusual insect-crop hybrid stature means that farmers in Álamos, Sonora—where the pod is harvested and remains the area's major export—rely heavily on ideal conditions. Lowered rainfall can result in lower yields. Álamos typically handles more than 20,000 liters of the pods annually. In 2005, thanks to unfavorable weather, it was just a few hundred.
There have been other issues with marketing hermetic caterpillars for novelty purposes. A UPS driver once grew nervous that he was transporting a rattlesnake thanks to a shipment of particularly active pods. Bomb squads have been called in on at least two occasions because the noise prompted airport workers to believe a ticking explosive device was in their midst. And then there was the Humane Society, which remained dubious the beans were an ethical plaything. (Since the caterpillars repair breaches to the pod, the reasoning is that it seems like they want to be in there, though no one can say whether the insects enjoy being handled or stuffed into pockets.)
You can still find the beans today, including via online retailers. They’re harmless and buying them as "toys" is probably not harmful to the caterpillar inside, though the standard disclaimer warning owners not to eat the beans remains. The police sergeant in Santa Barbara found that out the hard way: After taking his nightly prescription pill, he felt an odd sensation and went to the hospital. After physicians pumped his stomach, they noted that he had accidentally consumed a jumping bean. In his digestive tract, it was leaping to get out.
In 1984, ice cream truck driver Michael Larson set a record by winning $110,237 (a combined total of cash and non-cash prizes) in one appearance on the game show Press Your Luck—and he did it by gaming the system. He had noticed that the Press Your Luck board did not rely on luck at all, but was actually running in five predictable patterns, which he memorized over the course of six weeks (with the help of a VCR). By the time the show's taping was completed, everyone from the host to the contestants were mystified by Larson's amazing ability to avoid the Whammy (the squares on the board which would end the player's turn) and consistently win prizes.
Larson's original appearance was aired as two episodes due to the length of his winning streak. Producers initially tried to avoid paying him, since his pattern-memorization might be considered cheating. Eventually, the producers relented, after determining that the official game rules did not prevent a player from reverse-engineering the game patterns. Indeed, producers later revealed in a documentary that they knew there was a weakness to the game (only having five board patterns without any randomness), but the weakness was ignored until Larson's famous performance. Furthermore, in order to get spins on the board, Larson had to answer trivia questions, which relied on his trivia skills.
The original Larson shows were aired in June of 1984, then were not seen again in their entirety for almost two decades. But they are on YouTube (recorded from the Game Show Network), along with a documentary about Larson's experience (the documentary also shows the great majority of the show video, along with extensive followup from everyone involved).
GAMING THE GAME SHOW
Watch in amazement as the humble Larson goes on a winning streak. Pay particular attention to his focus, and how he often appears to celebrate a victory at the moment he strikes the button, rather than the moment the prize is explained to him—indicating that he knows the pattern, and is happy when he successfully hits the button at the right time.
Below, the first episode ends with the player on the left holding his head in his hands.
Wikipedia has an extensive narrative about what happened to Larson after his win. The short version is that he lost part of his money in a bizarre scheme involving $1 bills and a radio game show, and he lost the remainder when his house was burgled (he reportedly had $40,000 in $1 bills in the house). Two years after winning, he was working as an assistant manager at Walmart.
Larson eventually became involved with an illegal lottery scheme and lived his remaining years on the run from the law, eventually dying from throat cancer in Apopka, Florida in 1999 at the age of 49. It's a sad story—and one that has been written about more extensively at Snopes. Larson's story was also discussed on an episode of This American Life.