The year the geniuses behind the Hula-Hoop were beaten by a fish

Killifish

Original Instant Fish Packaging

Wham-O is a legendary company for a reason. It’s the place where the Hula-Hoop, Super Ball, and Frisbee made it big. What they couldn’t invent, they could market.

They famously dropped a bucket of Super Balls on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, they made the Hula-Hoop into a phenomenon, and they spun the Frisbee into a toy so popular its aerodynamics was studied by the Pentagon. 1980s Marketing Vice President Robert Gardner said they always looked for “something different. Something that surprises people.”

In 1962, the company thought they’d found another hit. It was perhaps their greatest gamble, and it was one that wouldn’t pan out because simple biology got in the way.

Wham-O’s heads are inspired by an African trip

Richard Knerr and Arthur Spud Melin were the two geniuses behind the 1950s toy phenomenon. College classmates, they struck it big with their unique brand of California weirdness. According to corporate lore, Melin was inspired to market the Hula-Hoop when an Australian toy manufacturer visited the factory and demonstrated a strange rattan hoop from down under. By 1958, the Hula-Hoop was a phenomenon.

That record of success made it only natural for Melin to believe he had the magic touch. But sometimes, his vision exceeded the limits of the company and biology, and that happened on a trip to Africa.

Accounts vary on whether Melin and Knerr both went to East Africa or if it was just Melin. Regardless, Melin encountered a species of killifish while there, and the unique behavior of the fish inspired a toymaker’s epiphany.

The killifish’s unique eggs take it all the way to the toy fair

The hook? The killifish, known to fans as a killie,  is a real fish, not a sea monkey style shrimp. The fish lives in regions that have a varying water supply, so an adaptation developed: its eggs can survive being dry (and some adults can even get by without water). Wham-O’s species was probably the beautiful Nothobranchius rachovii, and its climactic adaptation inspired Melin to make a business decision.

The small fish were beautiful, only a couple of inches, and could be shipped when they were eggs. These wouldn’t be speck-like Sea Monkeys—they’d be full-blown fish. He decided Wham-O would sell them, and the product took the 1962 New York Toy Fair by storm because it was the perfect toy. Branded as Instant Fish, the box promised fish in a box. It included a feeding tube that, in a strange quirk of fate, was filled with the brine shrimp that make Sea Monkeys.  Millions worth of orders were made.

But the killifish had something else to say about it.

The killifish kills Instant-Fish

The team at Wham-O could handle worldwide demand for Hula-Hoops, Super Balls, and Frisbees, but they couldn’t change biology.

The problem was that their supply of killifish didn’t lay eggs quickly enough to keep up with demand. They tried everything to keep the business going, from installing special lighting to playing romantic music in the breeding room. The millions of orders went unfilled and the company had to issue millions in refunds.

The gambit joined Wham-O’s other failures, like a DIY bomb shelter (a pile of bricks) and Bat Liver (a Silly Putty knock-off). The failure of Instant Fish even poisoned the market for Sea Monkeys.

“Wham-O was flying higher than a kite with the Super Ball and the Hula-Hoop, and they took a risk on Instant Fish,” the inventor of Sea Monkeys told an interviewer. “But the fish didn’t work. The buyer at Sears Roebuck almost got fired because of it. So when I took my Sea Monkeys around after that,  you’d think another Ice Age had happened. The doors that weren’t open to begin with slammed shut in my face.”

Even the company that made a plastic ring, a bouncy ball, and a repurposed pie-tin into hits couldn’t make Instant Fish work. But it wasn’t a shortcoming in marketing—just the stubborn biology of a unique fish.

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