A playground favourite for millions of schoolchildren the world over, the Yo-Yo is actually, according to some historians, one of the oldest toys around.
Museums hold examples of terracotta Yo-Yo’s from ancient Greece, and wall-paintings in Egyptian temples are said to depict playthings recognisable to the modern eye.
Even King George IV, when he was Prince of Wales, was caught up in the craze which emerged in England in the 18th Century. Anything the English aristocracy did, the French wanted to do too, and the game crossed the Channel to be called “L’Emigrette”. The Dauphin, son of Marie Antoinette and Louis XVI, was apparently a devotee.
While there is little evidence to support the theory that Yo-Yo’s were once used as weapons, both combatants at Waterloo – Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington – were said to be aficionados.
The name ‘Yo-Yo’ was first brought to the attention of western society in a 1916 Scientific American article on toys from the Philippines. Pedro Flores, a Filipino who emigrated to the United States, is widely credited with popularising the modern Yo-Yo after establishing a factory in Santa Barbara, California.
The first Yo-Yo craze swept across the US in the 1930s when Flores’ company, now owned by the entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan, ran promotions with the Hearst newspaper empire. London hosted the first World Yo-Yo Competition in 1932, won by 13-year old Harvey Lowe.
In 1946, Duncan moved his company to Luck, Wisconsin. He chose this area because it was rich in the hard maple needed to make Duncan Yo-Yo’s. Luck soon became known as The Yo-Yo Capital Of The World as the company began pumping out Yo-Yo’s at the rate of 3,600 an hour. In fact, they did so well that by 1962, they had sold 45 million Yo-Yo’s in a country with only 40 million kids.
Major advances in yoyo technology followed after 1955 when Duncan introduced the first plastic Yo-Yo’s and the hourglass-looking Butterfly shaped Yo-Yo, which was easier to land on the string for fancy tricks. Television advertising pushed Yo-Yo mania to new heights during the early 1960s.
A costly dispute over the Yo-Yo trademark drove the two biggest manufacturers into bankruptcy in 1965, but this event only served to widen the range of suppliers. Kids everywhere busied themselves learning how to “walk the dog” and “rock the baby”.
During the 1970s, competing Yo-Yo companies began introducing new technologies to jazz up their Yo-Yo’s. Yo-Yo’s glowed in the dark and whistled, and many Yo-Yo companies began adding weight to the rims of their Yo-Yo’s to increase their spin. In 1978, the “No Jive 3-in-1” Yo-Yo was patented by Tom Kuhn. It had a replaceable axle and was the first Yo-Yo that could be taken apart by hand.
In 1980, Michael Caffrey patented “The Yo-Yo with a Brain.” It had a centrifugal spring-loaded clutch mechanism that made the Yo-Yo return automatically to the user’s hand when its rotation slowed to a pre-determined rate.
In 1985, Yo-Yo’s even conquered outer space. On April 12th of that year, a Yo-Yo was taken on the Space Shuttle Discovery to see how it would perform in zero gravity. It could still be spun, but would not “sleep” at the end of the string since it did not have the pull of gravity to pull it down.
Yo-Yo’s got an additional shot of popularity during the 1980s from The Smothers Brothers when they introduced a bit on their popular television show called “The Yo-Yo Man.”
Tom Smothers would do amazing Yo-Yo tricks for the audience while Dick explained how his brother was in a “State of Yo.” It became a staple of their act as it helped keep Yo-Yo popularity at a high level.
Today, Yo-Yo popularity remains as strong as ever, thanks in part to championships and exhibitions that have led people to take the skill involved in using a Yo-Yo seriously.
In 1990, the first international Yo-Yo convention was held in conjunction with the annual International Juggler’s Association convention in Los Angeles.
This eventually developed into the modern World’s Championships. Around that time, the “Return of the Yo-Yo” exhibition began touring malls around America. It included the Duncan Family Collection and several “opening day” demonstrations that gave a new generation a taste of top-level Yo-Yo performance. The exhibit collection later formed the core of the National Yo-Yo Museum in Chico, California.
1993 saw the first modern National Yo-Yo Contest held in Chico, California, and the American Yo-Yo Association was founded. A few years later, Duncan returned to TV advertising with the “Video Boy,” claiming Yo-Yo’s a more exciting alternative to video games.
They also commissioned Dr James Watson of Ball State University to develop the “Teaching Science with the Yo-Yo” lesson program.
The five-day science planner gave educators an interactive, hands-on program to teach science theories to their students through classroom-based Yo-Yo lessons.
Modern Yo-Yo fanatics were ecstatic in 1996 when Duncan reintroduced the wooden Duncan Super Tournament Yo-Yo. A faithful reproduction of the 1955 model, the re-issue came in five classic colours packaged with the original “1955 Yo-Yo Trick Book.” A new wave of Yo-Yo madness swept the world, with Australia, Britain and Japan becoming serious Yo-Yo hotspots.
Most recently, Duncan made its first transaxle Yo-Yo, the Trans-aXtion. The pop dada-ists in Devo were hired to pitch the new Yo-Yo using a re-recorded (and doctored) version of Whip It. Devo vocalist Jerry Casale also directed the spot.
The new toy became a hit with Yo-Yo fanatics, thrusting the ancient toy into a new era of its incredibly long history.