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Richard Knerr & "Spud" Melin
Many popular products for children, like Silly Putty® and the Snugli®, owe their success to entrepreneurship as much as invention. The same is true of the hula hoop, "the granddaddy of American fads."
Children around the world have always played with hoops, by rolling and throwing them or twirling them around the waist and limbs. For adults, hoop twirling has at times been recommended as a weight-loss measure (ancient Greece) and, ironically, denounced as a source of sprains, pains and even heart attacks (14th-century England). These hoops were once made of vines or other plants, wood, or metal.
The conversion of the toy hoop into 20th-century Americana came thanks to Richard Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin, founders of the Wham-O Company. In 1957, an Australian visiting California told them offhand that in his home country, children twirled bamboo hoops around their waists in gym class. Knerr and Melin saw how popular such a toy would be; and soon they were winning rave reviews from schoolkids for the hollow plastic prototype they had created.
The next year, the hula hoop, whose name came from the Hawaiian dance its users seemed to imitate, was marketed nationwide. Americans kids and adults alike were hooked: Wham-O sold 25 million hula hoops in two months. Almost 100 million international orders followed. Wham-O could hardly patent an ancient item, but did reinvent, manufacture and market the hula hoop for the modern world---for example, by using Marlex, a lightweight but durable plastic then recently invented by Phillips Petroleum. By the end of 1958, after $45 million in profits, the craze was dying down. But Richard Knerr was ready with another bombshell: that year he had discovered the "Frisbie."
Today, the hula hoop still has its young fans, though eclipsed by faster-paced pastimes like inline skating. Nevertheless, the hula hoop is an outstanding example of entrepreneurial insight and modern manufacturing combined for sensational success.
Above photos of Rhythmic Hula Hoop contestants Martha and Bill courtesy of Amy L. Edwards