Richard Knerr: Toymaker behind the Hula Hoop

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Richard Knerr, toymaker: born San Gabriel, California 30 June 1925; twice married (one son, two daughters); died Arcadia, California 14 January 2008

"This country gave us more than we gave it," Richard Knerr once said, echoing the words of successful American entrepreneurs throughout the ages. But America – and the rest of the world too – didn't do badly in return. It got, among other things, the Hula Hoop, the Frisbee and the Superball – all crazes launched by Wham-O, the toy company set up in 1948 by Knerr and his old university buddy Arthur "Spud" Melin.

Like many start-up companies before and since, Wham-O began life in a garage – this one in Pasadena. It took its name from the sound that its first product, a slingshot, made when it hit its target. But the slingshot was only a start.

In 1957, Knerr and Melin bought the rights to a plastic flying disc that had been developed by a former air force pilot named Fred Morrison, after he watched students at Yale University throw pie tins to one another. Thus was born the "Pluto Platter", soon to become the Frisbee. Spurred by America's unflagging fascination with UFOs, the device sold 100 million units over the next 30 years.

Top that? The pair did so a year later, after an Australian business acquaintance brought a rattan hoop to Los Angeles and showed them how to whirl the device around their hips. It was trickier than it looked, but after four days a Wham-O executive finally got the hang of it.

The result was the Hula Hoop. Soon the company was manufacturing 20,000 a day. National competitions were organised and 20 million Americans bought Hula and sundry imitation hoops in a matter of months. It was, as the social historian Richard Johnson wrote in his 1985 book American Fads, "the undisputed granddaddy of all American fads".

In 1965, Melin and Knerr hit the jackpot for a third time with Superball, a small ball that bounced to prodigious heights and sold seven million in its first six months on the market. In one celebrated incident, a giant Superball was accidentally dropped out of a 23rd floor hotel window. It shot back up 15 floors, then down again onto a parked convertible car. The vehicle was a write-off, but the ball emerged completely unscathed.

The episode was a perfect example of what Knerr called the "wow factor", as he put it, "the moment when you're showing off a toy and everyone says, 'What's that? What's that?'"

Wham-O of course had its share of less than wowing moments. One was a $119 do-it-yourself fall-out shelter launched at the height of the Cold War. Then there was "Instant Fish", an idea born during a trip by Knerr and Melin to Africa, where they came across an obscure mud-fish with an astonishingly fast reproductive cycle.

Wham-O wanted to market the fish's eggs which, if placed in a bowl of water, would quickly hatch under the eyes of delighted onlookers. "We got a ton of orders," Knerr recalled later, "but the fish let us down. They just wouldn't lay eggs fast enough to make the project possible."

Rupert Cornwell