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When toys were designed to disappoint


I envy today’s kids for their modern, interactive toys.

Toys today even make appropriate noises so children no longer need to provide their own mouth sounds, like these: Rocket launching — “Pchhhh!” Explosion — “Pchhhh!” Raging fire — “Pchhhh!” Barbie about to launch a loogey — “Pchhhh!” 

Still, some long for the days of simple toys, when children had to pretend their finger was a gun, rather than having plastic rocket launchers that flash and boom and come with special shrapnel decals to stick on victims.

I grew up between the simple-toy and modern-toy eras. As a consequence, many toys made while I grew up promised modernistic design, great technological achievement and hours of futuristic fun.

But many of these toys never worked as designed or advertised. One example: X-ray vision glasses in comic-book ads. I never sent away for these. As a skeptical 8-year-old, it seemed too good to be true.

But my skepticism was shattered somehow by the Money Mint, another comic book-advertised item. This device supposedly printed out fresh $20 bills by running blank paper through its rollers. I thought that if I ordered it, I’d print $80, which would more than pay for the device.

But then I thought, why couldn’t I print bills after that? Why couldn’t I keep on until I had no further need for twenties? (In other words — indefinitely.)

My excitement and greed became so overwhelming, I couldn’t keep it to myself. I told my older sister about my plan for effortless wealth.

“It doesn’t really print money,” she said. “It’s a magic trick.”

She took too much pity on my stupidity to call me stupid, even when I protested that it really did truly and honestly print legal tender. But she planted the seed of doubt in my mind.

Useless toys were not limited to comic-book ads.

Take the Slinky. This springy device is designed to walk itself downstairs end over end. The thing is, it won’t. I’ve seen the commercials where it did, but never in real life. I’ve seen numerous Slinkys tumble haphazardly down a staircase. But I had plenty of toys that fell downstairs in a more satisfying manner than Slinky. 

Remarkably, the Slinky is still selling well. Why? For one thing, it was featured in the blockbuster Disney movie “Toy Story.” For another, parents fondly remembering the fun toys of their youth, buy it for their kids. But parents’ memories are faulty. There’s a sort of amnesia that affects a part of the brain that makes parents remember the Slinky as more fun than it really was and that makes them remember the walk to school through blinding blizzards as longer and snowier than it really was.

The Etch-a-Sketch, another toy of my youth, is still popular today thanks to “Toy Story” and millions of apparently amnesiac parents.

The back of the Etch-a-Sketch box showed examples of great works of art you could make with the toy. The only problem is you can’t draw anything on it. 

Even today, when I pass an Etch-a-Sketch in a store, I try to draw a simple curving line, but I can never get it to curve in the intended direction. The rotation of the two knobs doesn’t seem to correspond to what’s being drawn. I even try body language, lifting my foot and cocking my head as I turn the knobs, but still can’t get results.

My first encounter with a laptop computer reminded me of an Etch-a-Sketch. The computer had the same, dull gray screen and the same dimensions of the toy. It was about as useful. I worked in a tiny news bureau where I was required to write three stories a day — the computer could only hold two. So I was always erasing what I’d just written. You could hit the delete button, but the machine purged stories just as well by using the Etch-a-Sketch “shake-it-over-your-head” method.

While the Etch-a-Sketch promised great technological advancement in art, the only thing I found it good for was to pretend it was something else, like a spaceship control panel. Turn one of the knobs to steer to different galaxies and the other one to wipe out enemy spacecraft — “Pchhhh!”

Toys like the Etch-a-Sketch and Slinky may have been made with great intentions, but it seemed they were engineered specifically to disappoint and disillusion children. Show me one that works as advertised and I’ll give you $1,000.

And I’ll get you the cash as soon as I get my Money Mint working as advertised.

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