It’s Christmas Day again, and we return to a holiday feature made popular in recent years by IPWatchdog Founder Gene Quinn: a roundup of patents covering the most iconic toys and games ever created. Un updated list was published last year with such classics as Mr. Potato Head, Monopoly, Legos, Simon, the Game Boy and much more. This year, we provide an addendum to this list with a series of 10 additions.
Many a child around the world has woken up on Christmas morning to tear the wrapping paper off of a box containing one of the following toys or games, whether parents were worried about kids shooting their eyes out or the unusual, sometimes creepy, mood swings of small animatronic owls. May those of you who celebrate Christmas enjoy opening some future icons today!
Red Ryder BB Gun
Since it was first released in 1983, A Christmas Story has attained a near-mythic status among Christmas movies and it continues to be played by TV stations in 24-hour marathons on Christmas Day. Many of the movie’s most memorable moments involve Ralphie’s constant yearning for the Red Ryder BB Gun despite seemingly everyone’s admonition that “you’ll shoot your eye out, kid.”
The Red Ryder is a famous BB gun brand that has been marketed for more than 125 years by Daisy Outdoor Products and the company’s about page online notes that the history of the first BB gun that eventually came to be known as the Red Ryder stems back to 1886 and the work of inventor Clarence Hamilton. Perhaps the earliest available patent covering a BB gun invented by Hamilton is U.S. Patent No. 390311, Spring Air Gun, which lists Hamilton and Cyrus A. Pinckney as inventors. The patent claimed the combination of a true gun barrel pivotally secured at its forward end within a slot of a false barrel, which contains an actuating mechanism, the true gun barrel adapted to move vertically to close and open the breech, and a hind sight at the barrel’s rear that forms a handle and a stop. As the ‘311 patent’s diagrams show, the actuating mechanism includes a spring that propels either a bullet or a dart from the barrel.
Daisy has continued to secure patent rights to its BB gun products over the years and some of these filings highlight the tension between adventurous children and their protective parents. For example, in 1956 the USPTO issued U.S. Patent No. 2729208, titled Popgun and assigned to Daisy Manufacturing. As the ‘208 patent notes, “[f]or years youngsters have played with air rifles or BB guns,” but that “[i]t is felt by some parents that relatively small youngsters are not capable of handling air rifles of this type.” However, although non-projectile rifles existed, the invention covered by the ‘208 patent was developed because popguns at that time “[did] not produce a sufficiently loud noise to be really attractive to children.”
Considered by many to be the world’s first animatronic toy for children, Teddy Ruxpin was a commercial sensation in the mid-1980s. The talking Illiop, a humanoid creature that looks like a bear, was constructed with a series of servo motors programmed to control Teddy Ruxpin’s eyes and mouth responsive with the particular tape cassette or cartridge loaded into the player on his back. With a backstory developed over the years by Ken Forsse, who had worked as an animatronic engineer for Disney in the 1960s, Teddy Ruxpin reportedly earned $93 million in sales during its first year and more than 1.4 million units were sold by 1987.
A seminal patent protecting important animatronic features of Teddy Ruxpin and listing Forsse as an inventor along with Larry Larsen and John Davies is U.S. Patent No. 4665640, Electromechanical Controller. It claimed a controller for an animated character including an audio source with a control channel for playing control signals modulated according to a desired movement for parts of the animated character, a speaker for reproducing sounds from the audio source, a demodulator producing a demodulated output signal proportional to the desired movement, and a servomechanism moving an animated part according to the output signal. Diagrams attached to the ‘640 patent mainly depict the animatronic movement of Teddy Ruxpin’s mouth.
Worlds of Wonder, the company founded to commercialize Teddy Ruxpin, went bankrupt and closed its operations by the early 1990s, but the story of Teddy Ruxpin shows the importance of IP rights to continue commercializing a successful product even after a business failure. In September 1991, toy company Hasbro licensed the right to sell Teddy Ruxpin dolls, even agreeing to purchase the manufacturing machinery owned by Worlds of Wonder. Teddy Ruxpin may not have the popularity it enjoyed in the 1980s but official Teddy Ruxpin toys continued to be sold as recently as 2018.
Little Tikes Cozy Coupe
For many of us, our first car was not the cheapest model available on the used car lot that we visited with our parents some time around high school or thereafter. Topping out the highest speeds possible among scrambling toddlers, the Little Tikes Cozy Coupe continues to be a big seller even when compared to gas-powered automobiles and news reports out of England indicate that 85,000 Cozy Coupes were sold in that country during the first few months of 2020, a higher total than the combined sales for the UK’s six best-selling full-sized vehicles.
U.S. Patent No. D264608, Toy Automobile, is the design patent protecting the ornamental design of the toy automobile invented by James Mariol that would eventually become the Cozy Coupe. Inspired to create the car in the early 1980s after conceiving the concept while moving around on an office chair, Mariol developed his toy idea into a commercial blockbuster, selling 500,000 units in 1991 to technically become America’s best-selling automobile that year. Mariol would go on to invent other children’s toys and more industrial equipment like shop vacuums and air compressors. In 2009, the iconic red-and-yellow Cozy Coupe was inducted into Cleveland’s Crawford Auto-Aviation Museum, which houses historically significant automobiles, bicycles and spacecraft.
Developed by inventor Scott Stillinger as a fun toy to help his own children develop motor skills to better catch balls, the Koosh Ball was an instant success having sold millions of units within the first 18 months of its release in 1987. A standard 3-inch-diameter Koosh Ball is composed of 2,000 rubber filaments extending from a rubber core that solved various problems related to existing balls according to Stillinger’s seminal patent, U.S. Patent No. 4756529, Generally Spherical Object With Floppy Filaments to Promote Sure Capture:
To youngsters who are just developing motor control… it is often difficult and frustrating to try to catch various typically available throwing/catching amusement devices… One of the problems with many conventional throwing/catching devices is that, on impact, they do not absorb much energy, and accordingly, tend to bounce and get away from one’s grasp easily. Also, they sometimes hurt to catch. Another problem is that, typically, they do not offer a surface configuration that promotes quick, sure gripping.
To commercialize the Koosh Ball, Stillinger and members of his family founded toy company OddzOn Products which itself has some interesting history in IP-related case law. In 1991, soon-to-be Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg authored an opinion in the D.C. Circuit’s OddzOn Products v. Oman decision which upheld the U.S. Copyright Office’s decision to deny registration of any copyright protections for the visual character or “tactility” or feel of the Koosh Ball. Then in 1997, the Federal Circuit ruled in OddzOn Products v. Just Toys to clarify that Section 102(f), which prior to the America Invents Act prevented issuance of a patent on an invention derived from a true inventor, was considered a prior art provision for courts assessing a patent’s validity under Section 103 obviousness.
While Teddy Ruxpin reigned supreme among animatronic toys in the 1980s, the Christmas season of 1998 saw a feverish run of sales for the Furby, a talking doll with the appearance of an owl that was perhaps the world’s first talking toy to be programmed with moods responsive to user interactions. After the toy debuted at famed NYC toy store FAO Schwarz in early October 1998, the toy store received 35,000 orders for Furbies within one week. By the end of 1998, 1.8 million Furbies were sold, and this skyrocketed to more than 14 million units sold during 1999. Much like their collector toy contemporaries Beanie Babies, Furbies at that time were often resold by original purchasers at many multiples of their retail price.
Caleb Chung, David Hampton and Richard Levy are considered to be the main inventors behind the Furby and all three are listed as inventors on U.S. Patent No. D423611, Animatronic Toy. Hampton and Chung also appear as inventors on U.S. Patent No. 6149490, Interactive Toy, the original patent grant for the patent application filing to which many Furby patents claim priority. The ‘490 patent claims a compact interactive toy that provides life-like interaction with a user, the toy having body parts that move in a substantially non-cyclic life-like manner, a plurality of sensors for detecting predetermined inputs, a low-power reversible motor for driving body part movement, cam mechanisms for moving each body part, a programmable information processor for activating the motor, and a position feedback sensor to determine the precise position of cam surfaces to coordinate movement of body parts.
On Christmas Day 1963, there were doubtless many children who opened up a long, rectangular gift-wrapped package to discover a board game marketed by the Ideal Toy Company under the name “Mouse Trap.” Perhaps the first three-dimensional board game commercialized on the mass consumer market, Mouse Trap was one of the many successful games and toys conceived by inventor Marvin Glass, whose Chicago-area Marvin Glass and Associates game engineering firm is responsible for commercial successes like Simon, Operation and Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots. Mouse Trap is renowned for its Rube Goldberg contraption which is built cooperatively by players who then compete to use the machine to trap the game pieces of other players.
Both Marvin Glass and Gordon Barlow are listed as inventors on U.S. Patent No. 3298692, Game With Action Producing Components. It claimed a game comprising a game board including a track defining a plurality of stations and having a starting point, a number of pieces for movement from station to station in accordance with numbers selected by lot, a cage, a support for the cage for maintaining the cage in an elevated position above a particular station, and means adapted to be tripped and to initiate and perform a series of actions terminating in the dropping of the cage to enclose any game piece which is on the particular station.
Interestingly, Marvin Glass and Associates had asserted the ‘692 patent against alleged infringer De Luxe Topper Corp., claiming infringement caused by its sale of the Silly Safari board game that also included a Rube Goldberg-type machine for capturing game pieces. In a ruling on summary judgment in September 1967, U.S. District Judge Dudley Baldwin Bonsal granted De Luxe Topper’s motion for noninfringement in part because, although both games had Rube Goldberg-type machines as cages for playing pieces, the Silly Safari cage was movable whereas the Mouse Trap cage was stationary over a single playing space.
While Internet search results provide spare details about the Lite-Brite’s history, several websites attribute the development of the lighting device and colored plastic pegs to a Joseph Burck, a senior designer at Marvin Glass & Associates when he invented the Lite-Brite in 1967. Marvin Glass filed a patent application on the Lite-Brite the following year and in September 1970, the USPTO issued U.S. Patent No. 3530615, Illuminated Design Set. It claimed a design set for creating illuminated designs having a light source within the set, a perforated plate with a plurality of openings that is positioned within the set’s opening, a grid structure with a plurality of cells aligned horizontally and vertically, a sheet of frangible material laid over the grid structure and a plurality of translucent pegs inserted in the perforated plate by penetrating the sheet of frangible material.
Anyone who has grown up in a family that had an old Lite-Brite knows the issues of long-term maintenance for this toy: the pegs were easy to lose, the bulb difficult to replace, and no one ever wanted to buy replacement paper sheets to lay on the grid. Original Lite-Brites came with a total of 400 pegs in eight colors and several design templates that children could follow, although some freeform Lite-Brite designs almost rise to the level of art. Hasbro continues to market Lite-Brite products, current models now incorporate LEDs and multiple lighting modes.
Now-defunct toy company Kenner Products debuted some interesting toys over the years, including the Spirograph and the Easy-Bake Oven. But in 1974, Kenner design director Jesse Horowitz and Kenner’s VP of research and development James Kuhn hit upon an idea for a stretchable action figure. In an attempt to reduce the hazards posed to children by metal coils, Kuhn, a chemist, decided to fill the stretchable latex “skin” of the figure with corn syrup at a viscosity which enabled the figure to retain its shape for a short time when pulled before retracting to its original shape. Thus, Stretch Armstrong was born.
The seminal patent for Stretch Armstrong is U.S. Patent No. 4169336, titled Stretchable Figure Exhibiting Slow Recovery and listing Kuhn as the inventor. It claimed a toy figure having limbs that can be manually moved from one position to another, slowly returning to its original position when released. The toy further had a shaped elastic skin capable of stretching to at least 300 percent its original dimensions and a viscous liquid filling material with a viscosity that remains constant under shear, cohesive properties so that the liquid doesn’t separate as the skin is stretched, adhesive characteristics for adhering to the skin when stretched and a chemical composition that won’t destroy the shaped elastic skin. Although Stretch Armstrong is shaped as a male figure, the patent specifically mentions the use of the invention for “a muscular man or a shapely woman,” and diagrams attached to the ‘336 patent show the invention as implemented in a giraffe-shaped figure.
From 1916 to 1917, John Lloyd Wright was in Japan working with his father, famed American architect Frank Lloyd Wright, on constructing the Imperial Hotel in Tokyo, Japan. While the family relationship quickly soured, the junior Wright’s exposure to earthquake-resistant forms of building architecture gave him the idea for one of the most iconic toys ever: Lincoln Logs. Upon his return to America, John Lloyd Wright began marketing Lincoln Logs through his Red Square Toy Company and since that time the toy cabin building blocks have become a treasured piece of Americana. Wright even came out with an updated block configuration by the 1930s which he called Wright Blocks, but that product never became the commercial success that Lincoln Logs were.
In August 1920, the Patent Office issued U.S. Patent No. 1351086, Toy-Cabin Construction. It claimed a toy structure in the representation of a log cabin comprising a plurality of notched members resembling logs adapted to be assembled one above the other to form the structure’s walls, the members of each wall having interlocking engagement with each other at the corners of the structure. The toy structure further included a means for forming end wall gables comprising a series of members of uniformly decreasing length, a plurality of transverse connecting members and a member at the apex of the gable to form a ridge pole. In 1999, Lincoln Logs were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.
With sales buoyed in large part thanks to effective marketing campaigns on Nickelodeon, which was still a nascent children’s TV station during the 1980s, the Skip-It became a sensation for Tiger Electronics during the 1980s. Details of the Skip-It’s invention story are fairly sparse but in October 1989, the USPTO issued U.S. Patent No. 4875675, Skipping Toy and Method of Playing Same. It claimed a toy adapted to be rotatably spun in a generally horizontal path about a person’s ankle, the toy having a collar to fit around the ankle, a drum engaging a ground surface during play, an elongated means connecting the collar and the drum and directing the drum in a rotary path around a player’s ankle, and then a means carried by the drum for visually displaying the number of successive rotations of the drum.
While the history of the Skip-It may be cloudy, doubtless many readers have enjoyed the fruits of the toy’s success even if they’ve never strapped one to their ankle. While DC Comics ruled 1980s cinema with major motion pictures featuring Batman and Superman, Marvel Comics floundered on a variety of film projects until the company was saved from bankruptcy in the early 1990s by a merger with ToyBiz, whose CEO at that time was Skip-It inventor Avi Arad. After the merger, Arad took over Marvel’s film division and developed an entirely new business strategy for licensing superhero films for the comic book company which involved Marvel commissioning its own scripts and conducting its own negotiations with actors and directors, creating a package that Marvel then sold to major film studios. After scoring some successes with X-Men and Spiderman films, the strategy unlocked massive success for Marvel after Iron Man was released in 2008, heralding the beginning of the Marvel Cinematic Universe.
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