Archive Gallery: PopSci Plays With Toys

The science, the creation, the business, and the fun of toys

Toys are a serious business, we learn in the PopSci archives.

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Be thankful your parents didn't buy you a toy switchboard because they read that you have to buy toys that help kids prepare for their future careers, or a depressingly realistic set of radiation tools to help you "learn the principles of atomic energy." And good thing the war's over, so we can make toys out of metal again.

Sound-Activated Toys, November 1916
Inventor H. Christian Berger took a relatively basic scientific principle--that a loud sound can trigger a telephone transmitter to send an electric current through an electromagnet--and harnessed it for perhaps the most noble purpose of all: fun. Berger created several toys that responded to sound, using the electric current from the telephone transmitter to trip a spring or lever. For example, this wooden pup is shoved out of his kennel by a spring at the sound of a handclap, making him appear to jump at your beck and call. The same principle applies to a bank that uses a lever to flip a coin inside when you clap your hands, and a dummy that dances when you whistle into the transmitter attached to the box he stands on. Read the full story in Toys That Obey Your Voice.
The Toys Make the Man, December 1924
In this article, toy manufacturer Ferdinand Strauss proclaims, in a surge of interwar nationalism, that Americans have the edge on Europeans because American children play more. He backs up his assertion with some statistics of dubious origin--"There are 100 children who play in America to 25 in Europe"--and claims that because of this, the children of Europe lack individuality. "They are stiff, unassertive and afraid of one another." Luckily American children have their toys to turn them into titans of industry. Did you know that Orville and Wilbur Wright played with balloons a lot as children, and that's probably why they invented the airplane? It must be true because somebody wrote it down. But what kind of toy should you get your child to ensure he reaches his full potential? Strauss counsels that whatever the child is interested in, be it electrical toys, mechanical toys, tools, boats, whatever, you should be sure to buy them something that is "as nearly an exact imitation of the real thing as possible" so they can learn from it. He also says you can get your kid to stop being afraid of dogs by buying him a stuffed dog. U! S! A! Read the full story in Toys That Have Helped Men to Great Success.
Minis at the Movies, February 1929
When model enthusiasts grow up, if they're lucky, they can translate their toys into a career creating stories with miniatures for the cinema. We revealed a few tricks of the trade, lifting the curtain a bit for PopSci readers to show them how some of their favorite movie scenes are actually just grownups playing with toys.
Whimsical Wooden Wanderers, December 1944
With enough wood, some hard work and a sense of whimsy in your heart, you can make a one-of-a-kind toy in time for Christmas. Strategically-placed dowels give the toys moving parts, and each has its own little personality. I'll leave it to our writer to describe those: "Pinto Pete and his rider, Sagebrush Sam, proceed in a series of leaps and bounds with hoofs flying and tail waving jauntily in the breeze. But no matter what gyration Pinto essays, he can't unseat his intrepid rider, who looks quite gay in his brown chaps and his orange plaid shirt." "Jacko, the monkey, is very polite, for as he pedals along, he jovially tips his cap to passersby." We assured readers that these guys could easily be constructed of "noncritical materials" left lying around at home, but we did caution that you should paint them "preferably using nonpoisonous enamels." Read the full story in Lively Action Toys You Can Make of Wood.
The Return of Metal Toys, April 1946
The end of World War II meant that all the metal was no longer designated for guns and fighter planes, and children across the nation could rejoice at the end of their time stuck playing with toys made of wood, or dirt, or whatever. Back in full force were sexist toys made of metal: "boy-proof tricycles" and sewing machines for "future wives." Also perhaps the worst toy ever, the bomb scooter, or "Pedal Bomb," pictured here. Read the full story in Metal Toys Are Here Again.
The Age of Realism, August 1947
"The history of toys has long been described as the history of the world in miniature," we sagely wrote in this 1947 article. If so, this was not the age of fantasy. No toy unicorns or mermaids here, just cold hard reality, made smaller. Toys were seeking "effectively to instruct as well as to amuse," and so we ended up with tiny car washes that spray real water, mini lumber carriers and the bleakest specimen, pictured at left: a tiny set of fake uranium ore samples and radiation measurement tools to "help children learn the principles of atomic energy." Read the full story in Toys Mirror a New Age.
Constructing with Clips, December 1947
Sometimes building the toy is more fun than actually playing with it. The Clip-Craft Corp. seized onto the idea to appeal to fledgling DIY-ers with its proto-K'nex construction set comprised of wooden rods and steel clips. Add a couple wheels, and presto! You've got this skeletal Jeep. The company also provided flat sheets of aluminum for the offhand chance that kids would want to cover and keep their creations, rather than destroying them and reusing the pieces. Read the full story in Clipping a Toy Together.
The Toys That Sell, November 1952
For those looking to get into the toy business, it's not all fun and games. "Fortunes are made and lost on toys," the director of Toy Guidance Counsel wrote in this article. "But toys are no longer child's play. They're men's work." A single plastic mold could cost $25,000, so manufacturers were reluctant to take chances on ideas they didn't think could sell. We offered advice to aspiring inventors to guide them on the right path. "Children want to 'act grown up,'" so toys that let them play-act at a profession are usually a safe bet. But careful not to let them act too grown up--one Ohio inventor perfected a doll that could smoke cigarettes, an idea that manufacturers rightly shunned. Some of the toys PopSci predicted would be most successful in the 1952 Christmas season included cap-shooting rifles, model trains, toy dump trucks, as well as tiny switchboards and a nurse's kit, the only two toys that seemed to be targeted at girls, so, yay for the patriarchy I guess. Read the full story in How Toy Inventors Sell Their Ideas.
Simple is Best, December 1960
It's a well-known phenomenon: you give a kid a fancy, expensive new toy, and she just wants to play with the box. Sometimes the simplest toys are the most fun. In this article, we cautioned against forgetting the classic folk toys that have entertained children for generations: "Fast being lost in this age of plastic playthings are the homely toys kids used to make for themselves. They didn't look like much, but they sure were fun." Lest their cultural memory be outshone by the shiny newness of mass-produced toys, we provided schematics for kids to build some of these folk toys with easily found materials, then to terrorize their neighborhoods with homemade boomerangs, slingshots, whistles and rubber band guns. Read the full story in The Folk Toys We're All Forgetting.
A Physics Professor Quizzes You on How Toys Work, April 1967
Professor Julius Sumner Miller of El Camino College loves toys. "Certain toys are far more than mere playthings," he told us in 1967. "Otherwise, in my 58th year, I would not be playing with them." In this article, he demonstrates the "profound physical riddles involved in the working of these deceptively simple-looking toys." After first giving you the chance to figure it out yourself, Professor Miller unravels the mysteries of rubber pistols (squeezing the trigger harder makes the ball fly farther because it compresses the air more and stores more spring energy inside), those wheels that roll on metal spindles, pictured at left (if you give it enough kinetic energy by rolling it back and forth while horizontal, it will defy gravity when you turn it vertical) and more. Read the full story in Classic Toys Test Your Physics Know-How.