Toys that feature getting wet have a history of becoming iconic to the point it’s hard to imagine summer without squirt guns, water balloons or flotation devices. It may come as a surprise that some of the most popular water toys were not planned by their inventors, but instead were inspired by random observations.
By Eric Herman
Some of the world’s greatest inventions happened by chance. X-rays, Post-It Notes, tea bags and penicillin are among the most storied examples of unexpected flashes of creative inspiration. Like the apple landing on Sir Isaac Newton’s head, occasionally an idea smacks a unwitting inventor on the noggin without warning or notice. Some of these revelations save lives, others offer convenience, while others still are just plain fun.
In that grand context of invention, it’s worth noting that three of the most iconic water toys came to be entirely by accident, and the world of aquatic play has never been the same. Here’s a quick look at these fun-making chance inventions.
THE POOL NOODLE
Steve Hartman, CEO and president of Industrial Thermal Polymers is largely credited for inventing the Pool Noodle. Created back in the 1980s, this simple and colorful foam tubes have become ubiquitous in pools the world over, providing fun and flotation for millions; and, they can be great fun for harmlessly smacking friends and family.
As the story goes, Hartman was going into business with his dad in Toronto, Canada when inspiration came his way. He and his dad were making “back rods,” which are used in expansion joints in large concrete structures as a way to seal the spaces between concrete slabs. The rods were long, gray foam tubes.
Over time, Hartman noticed that whenever he and his family jumped in their pool, they wound up playing with the rods, using them as impromptu flotation devices and as harmless weapons. Hartman decided to try manufacturing shorter rods that were brightly colored and market them as pool toys.
At first, noodle sales were limp. No one knew how to use them. As a result, Hartman lost interest and didn’t bother to patent his invention. The pool noodle would have been lost to obscurity were it not for a company called Canadian Tire, a retailer with a variety of merchandise.
They cut the price and prominently displayed the colorful foam rods. Sales came to a boil and the noodle is now one of the most common pool toys and flotation devices found in backyards around the world.
Because Hartman did not patent the idea, a number of competitors have entered the decidedly niche market. Most notably, fellow Canadian, Richard Koster, created the water woggle around the same time as the pool noodle, creating an ongoing controversy about which came first, the noodle or the woggle.
THE SUPER SOAKER
Unlike Hartman, who did not set out to be an inventor, Lonnie Johnson, the inventor of the Super Soaker, holds a number of patents for film lithium batteries, heat pumps, electrochemical conversion systems and other techy creations, including technology used in CDs and DVDs.
With all those achievements, inventing what amounts to a squirt gun on steroids may be his most well-known invention. As the story goes, he was working on improving heat pump systems, when one of his prototypes sprang a leak, shooting a stream of water through the air. Although he hadn’t been thinking about the joys of dousing others, it occurred to him that kids would love wielding powerful H2O ordinance.
He ran with the idea and launched the first Super Soaker in 1990 using a very simple plastic cylinder and piston design that delivered a surprisingly robust stream. In two short years, it became the world’s top-selling toy. In the decades since, numerous iterations of the concept have come on the market, but the nascent joy of hosing down friends and family remains the same.
SLIPPING AND SLIDING
Robert Carrier, inventor of the Slip-n-Slide found his original inspiration from watching people “body plane” in the mud. It occurred to him to develop a device that would enable the same excitement, without all the mess. Thus, the first Slip-n-Slide was born in 1961, except he called his creation a “portable aquatic play device for body planing.”
The name wouldn’t come until later and would lead to fast-moving success as a kind of ad hoc interactive water feature.
In effect, Carrier’s simple concept would foretell the advent of waterpark slides many years later. Although the Slip-n-Slide has faced concerns about safety over the years, including a product recall in 1993, the product has endured for more than six decades.
Pool Noodle photo by Have a nice day Photo | Shutterstock, Super Soaker photo by The Old Major | Shutterstock, Slip-n-Slide photo by Rob Hainer | Shutterstock.