In Memoriam: Arthur Melin and Richard Knerr – Co-Founders of WHAM-O

Arthur Melin (left) and Richard Knerr (right). Photo from The Telegraph.

Arthur Melin (left) and Richard Knerr (right). Photo from The Telegraph.

In the toy business, we aspire to create fun for people.  Art (“Spud”) Melin and Richard (“Rich”) Knerr had a knack for fun, and an open door for outside inventor ideas.

The childhood friends formed WHAM-O in 1948, as college students, when they began making and selling slingshots in a garage. In fact, the company was named for the spectacular sound that was made by those slingshots.

Wildly entrepreneurial, their path was a twisty road in the beginning, where they tried a variety of endeavors before committing to their destiny in toys. They initially focused on sporting goods, like the slingshots, and related items such as boomerangs, blow guns and crossbows.

While they had plenty of ideas of their own over the years, their biggest hits were ideas that they licensed from inventors.

An Evergreen Icon: The Frisbee

Their first hit product was created in the 1940’s by a building inspector and former Air Force pilot, named Walter Frederick Morrison.  For nearly 10 years, he sold his flying disc under a few different names (The “Whirl-O-Way,” “Pluto Platter,” and “Flying Saucer”) that were intended to capitalize on the fascination, in mid-1950’s popular culture, with unidentified flying objects (UFOs). The WHAM-O partners bought the idea from Morrison in 1955.

The cosmic names didn’t fly and after a year or so, they made some design modifications and changed the name to “Frisbee.”

There are many stories that circulate about how the name came to be. What we know to be true is that part of the lore includes the Frisbie Baking Company in Connecticut. Students at Yale had created a game of tossing empty pie tins (or cookie jar lids) that were stamped with the Frisbie name, back and forth to one another on campus lawns for fun. There was also a popular comic strip character at the time called “Mr. Frisbie.” Knerr referenced both the pie tins and the comic character as inspirations for the product’s new name.

Photo by Wikipedia user Petey21.

Photo by Wikipedia user Petey21.

They sold millions of the flying discs that next year, and over 100 million over the next 30 years.

In the mid 1960s, a game that morphed the rules of American Football and soccer – with a Frisbee – emerged on college campuses. Famed film producer, Joel Silver, put formal rules around it in 1968, when he was a student at Columbia High School in Maplewood, New Jersey.  He is credited with inventing the game known today as “Ultimate Frisbee.”  Now, the game is surging in popularity around the world. Organized leagues from elementary age to adult have been around since the 1970s and are growing rapidly with over 5 million participants playing in organized leagues in the US alone.  In 2015, the game became eligible for inclusion as an Olympic sport.

Masters of the Fad: Hula Hoop

With the momentum of the Frisbee still in full swing, the duo launched their next smash, the Hula Hoop. The concept was introduced to them by a friend from Australia, who described children there playing with bamboo hoops.

They launched it in January, 1958, creating buzz by distributing free samples to school children. By that summer, it was a frenzied fad.  Everyone had to have one and millions were sold. Other toy companies were knocking off the idea left and right.  Life Magazine and The Dinah Shore Show featured teenagers playing with the toy en masse. Then, as quickly as it appeared, when the end of summer 1958 arrived, everyone returned to school and interest in the Hula Hoop evaporated, leaving the company with millions of unsold units and a $10,000 loss for the year.

Bouncing Back with the Super Ball

It would have been easy to become discouraged by the outcome of the Hula Hoop, but the partners were busy looking for the next big thing.  They bounced right back with the Super Ball. They bought the idea from the inventor, Norman H. Stingley, in 1965.

The fad took off for the next two years, and WHAM-O sold tens of millions of the high bouncing, colorful, crazy, pocket-sized balls in the 1960s and continued selling them into the 70s.

An Eye for Novelty and FUN

The company manufactured dozens of products over the years and, like other companies in the 20th century, took advantage of new plastic injection molding technology to stretch their capabilities.  But curious, zany and incredible items with a physical interaction element remained their signature. 

Other memorable WHAM-O products that became household names include:

  • ·         Silly String
  • ·         Slip-N-Slide
  • ·         Hacky Sack
  • ·         Boogie Board

"Spud and Rich introduced a 10 year record of the most amazing toys of the 20th Century. In the past 50 years no toy company has matched their keen product sense or their flair for showmanship."    --Bob Moog, President of University Games

Passing the Frisbee to the Next Generation

In 1982, the partners sold the company to Kransco. Mattel bought the company in 1994.

Melin passed away in 2002 and Knerr passed away in 2008.

Today, WHAM-O is owned by the Aguilar Group and continues to market classic product lines such as Frisbee, Slip-N-Slide, Boogie Board, Hacky Sack, Hula Hoop and Super Ball.

In 2008, Chronicle Books published the WHAM-O Super-Book, by Tim Walsh.

I grew up with WHAM-O toys and felt like I owed Spud and Rich a big thank you. That’s why I wrote a book about them and their company. WHAM-O grew from a wooden sling shot manufacturer to the most successful outdoor toy maker in the world. A list of their iconic toys vibrates with fun: Frisbee, Super-Ball, Hula Hoop, Slip ’N’ Slide, Monster Magnet, Water Wiggle, Hacky Sack, Air Blaster, SuperElasticBubblePlastic and on and on. Spud & Rich gave the world so much fun."         --Tim Walsh