It’s the goose that laid the golden egg, the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow: we’re talking about the invention idea that seems crazy, but turns out to be wildly, insanely successful.
History, both distant and recent, is full of these unlikely top inventions of the product development world – although it’s certainly fair to say that the rise of consumer culture and increase in expendable income throughout the 20th century has had a lot to do with it. It’s hard to imagine that a pioneer family would spend their hard-earned few dollars on a Magic Eight ball.
So without further ado, here are 5 bizarre inventions that made millions.
- The Pet Rock. The inventor of The Pet Rock, Gary Dahl, came up with his utterly ridiculous creation in 1975. He was a millionaire by the time the Pet Rock was discontinued, just one year later. Was he a genius or a con artist? There’s no telling, but probably a little bit of both.
- Big Mouth Billy Bass. You remember the commercials: a seemingly real mounted bass suddenly comes to life and sings covers of Al Green’s “Take Me to the River” and “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.”
- The Snuggie. Who knew a fleece blanket with sleeves would appeal to our collective sense of humor so successfully? The viral sensation has brought in more than $500 million for its creator, Josh Boilen, and the company that created it, Allstar Products.
- The Slinky. This incredibly simple toy came out in 1945 and so far has earned $250 million. The creator, Richard T. James, was a naval engineer who invented the Slinky after dropping a tension spring on the floor and watching it move around.
- The Magic 8 Ball. While the Magic 8 Ball won’t actually tell your fortune, the mechanism that turns to give you your answer after was actually inspired by a clairvoyant. The inventor of that mechanism, Albert C. Carter, created it after studying a “spirit writing” device that his psychic mother, Claire, developed in Cincinnati.
One thing we do know is that he had a strong sense of the absurd. As Dahl said in a 1975 interview with People magazine, “People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems. This takes them on a fantasy trip – you might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor."
And that Pet Rock wasn’t just being sold in Five and Dimes or Woolworth’s. That same interview quotes a gift buyer at Bloomingdale’s in New York, Dennis Hamel, saying “It’s unbelievable. We’re selling 400 a day.”
That’s Big Mouth Billy Bass, the gag gift that made novelty company Gemmy Industries and its VP of product development, Joe Pellettieri, overnight successes. According to the New York Times, Queen Elizabeth had one at Balmoral Castle; according to the Orlando Sentinel, Bill Clinton gave a Big Mouth Billy Bass to Al Gore. The singing fish made Gemmy millions.
A lot of its success had to do with the marketing – the commercials made the most of the item’s ridiculousness, featuring families wearing the voluminous sleeved blankets together and watching TV or roasting marshmallows. And the Snuggie shows no sign of fading away, either – in honor of the Snuggie’s 5th birthday, the company just released new designs, including a bikini, a tuxedo, and an evening gown.
James ended up creating his own company, the James Spring and Wire Co., to produce the Slinky, and he debuted it in a demonstration at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia. According to legend, the entire inventory – 400 units – sold out within 90 minutes. In the 1970s, James left everything behind to join the Wycliffe Bible Translators in Bolivia, and his wife took over the company.
Before it assumed its well-known black-and-white form in the 1950s, the toy had a brief life as a crystal ball. While it wasn’t very popular, it did catch the eye of Brunswick Billiards, a Chicago billiards company – it was they who commissioned the original Magic 8 Ball. The rest is history.
While we can’t guarantee your idea will make you a million dollars, no matter how weird it is, we can help you bring that idea to life. Whether you need product design, prototyping services, manufacturing services, or supply chain management services, Pivot’s team is ready to help you. Interested in a free consultation? Contact us!