Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 2796: THE YO-YO

John Lienhard presents María Elena Soliño and Steven Mintz

Today, the ups and downs of the yo-yo. The University of Houston’s Hispanic Studies department presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

Who deserves to be called a product’s inventor: The first person to dream up a product? To produce the product? To patent a product? Or to commercialize it?

Let’s take the example of the yo-yo. We know from Greek vases that children played with yo-yo like toys 2500 years ago. The word itself comes from the Philippines where the toy was introduced in the early nineteenth century, yóyo being the Tagalog word supposedly meaning come and go. There is even speculation that versions of it with razor-sharp edges were used as weapons, almost like a boomerang.

The first U.S. patent for a yo-yo like toy was issued in 1866, but it was not until 1928, that a Filipino immigrant named Pedro Flores popularized the toy. While working as a porter in a Santa Monica, California hotel, he demonstrated various yo-yo tricks to the guests. Flores made a key innovation in the yo-yo. Instead of tying a knot around the axel, he used a loop, which allowed the yo-yo to sleep or spin and to perform other tricks. Flores’s demonstrations proved so popular that he opened the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company in Santa Barbara. Flores is also credited with promoting the yo-yo contests that helped fuel the craze.


Pedro Flores Yo-yo Circ. 1928-1929

Then Donald Duncan — the entrepreneur who marketed the first successful parking meter — bought out Flores’s company. Duncan succeeded in turning yo-yos into the first modern children toy craze using new mass advertising techniques. He sent out teams to demonstrate yo-yo tricks. In fact, Duncan hired Flores to serve as one of the first 42 original yo-yo demonstrators.

Flores’ and Duncan’s yo-yo were among the very first toys marketed directly to children rather than to their parents. Unlike earlier toys, such as Lincoln Logs or dolls, yo-yos weren’t intended to socialize boys and girls into distinctive gender roles. Nor were they sold as educational, even though yo-yos can illustrate such principles of physics as motion, friction, inertia, acceleration, momentum, and velocity.

Not surprisingly, the yo-yo has had its ups-and-downs, only to bounce back. Today, it’s possible to buy a yo-yo formed from magnesium alloy with a precision ball bearing axel for more than $400.

In a children’s world dominated by videogames, fewer kids know how to “walk the dog” or “rock the baby” or make the yo-yo go “round the world.” Still, we might remember that today’s highly commercialized world of mass manufactured children’s toys began with the lowly yo-yo.

This episode was written in collaboration with Steven Mintz, and I’m María Elena Soliño of the University of Houston where we’re interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


For biographical information on Pedro Flores, see N. Hirahara, Distinguished Asian American Business Leaders (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Publishing Group, 2003), pp. 56-58.

Cross, Gary S. Kids' Stuff: Toys and the Changing World of American Childhood (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1999).

Scott, Sharon M. Toys and American Culture: An Encyclopedia (Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 2010).

Images

Pedro Flores yo-yo. circa 1928-1929. Photography by Rick Kroytz.

Biography

Maria Elena Soliño is Associate Professor of Spanish Literature and Film in the Department of Hispanic Studies at the University of Houston. Steven Mintz is a historian of families and children at Columbia University, where he directs the Graduate School of Arts & Sciences Teaching Center.

This episode was first aired on May 29, 2012



The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2012 by John H. Lienhard.