Dear Straight Dope:
Who invented the yo-yo? And what was its original purpose?
Unfortunately, there’s not a simple answer. The yo-yo may have been a Chinese, or Greek, or Filipino invention. It’s not clear if the toy arose independently in different locations, or spread from one spot to another. The key to the modern American yo-yo, in America, however, lies in the Philippines. Its name and popularity date from the 1920s, with a major contributor being Pedro Flores (more later).
But let’s start earlier. According to Asian historians, yo-yo-like toys originated in China about 1000 BC, in the form of two disks sculpted from ivory, connected by a central peg with a silk cord. The first indisputable evidence, however, is from Greece, around 450 to 500 BC–a bowl depicts a boy playing with a disk dangling on the end of a string. The disks were made from wood or painted terra cotta and the toy was called (duh) a "disk." Either way the yo-yo is the world’s second oldest toy–only dolls are older.
That’s the toy origin. But some claim that 16th century hunters in the Philippines had a yo-yo-like weapon consisting of large disks connected by a twine. The hunter hid in a tree and flung the disk at his prey, somewhat in the manner of slingshot, I suppose. The twine could be used to pull back the disks if his aim was off. It is also possible that the twine ensnared the animal’s legs and tripped it so it could be killed more easily.
So there is some argument that the toy in the Philippines originated as a weapon, but no hard evidence. The most likely scenario is that the little round toy on a string made its way from ancient China to both Greece and the Philippines.
Mentions of the yo-yo are common from the 1760s on as the toy traveled from India to Europe, becoming especially popular among the upper classes in England and France. As it traveled it acquired various names: a "quiz" in England, "émigrétte" or "bandalore" in France, "coblenz" and other names elsewhere in Europe. Yo-yos were often richly decorated, carved of ivory or even glass with polished brass axles, and painted with geometric designs that produced mesmerizing patterns while spinning.
A painting from 1789 shows the child who would have been Louis XVII holding a yo-yo. Aristocrats fleeing France (émigres) during the Revolution brought the toy to Coblenz–hence the names émigrétte and coblenz. There is a drawing of General Lafayette flinging one. Beaumarchais’ The Marriage of Figaro (1792) has Figaro show nervousness not by conventional wringing of hands, but by playing with his émigrétte and commenting, "It is a noble toy, that dispels the fatigue of thinking."
Napoleon’s armies played with yo-yos. The Duke of Wellington is reputed to have been an enthusiast. A British cartoon from 1862 shows two kids terrorizing an old woman with their "quizzes." The U.S. granted a patent in 1866 for an "improved bandalore," weighted at the rim.
Somewhere along the way, the Filipinos improved the yo-yo by looping the string around the axle, allowing the toy to "rest" or "sleep" at the end of the string before the disk returned upward. The simple down-and-back toy was thus transformed, and a wide variety of tricks became possible. The yo-yo became a national pastime in the Philippines, with the disks hand-carved from a single piece of animal horn or lignum wood.
Following the Spanish-American war, many Filipinos emigrated to California and brought their culture with them, including the yo-yo. In 1916, the Scientific American Supplement, in an article called "Filipino Toys," called the spinning disks a "yo-yo." The term is Tagalog (the main language in the Philippines) for "come-come" or "come back." So it’s not unreasonable to say that the true origin of the modern yo-yo is the Philippines.
If we are to credit one person with the global popularity of yo-yos from the 20th century onwards, it would be Pedro Flores, although few except aficionados remember him today. A Filipino immigrant, Flores never claimed to have invented the yo-yo, but always said that it had been a game in the Philippines for centuries.
He was a yo-yo expert who could make the toy do amazing tricks. He registered a version with the U.S. Patent Office under the name "Flores Yo-Yo" and produced hand-crafted wooden models. He started in 1928 with a dozen yo-yos, all handmade; eighteen months later, he had three factories producing 300,000 yo-yos daily and employing 600 workers. According to yo-yo historian Lucky Meisenheimer, Flores started the yo-yo spinning contest that inspired the first yo-yo frenzy in the U.S. His ads used the phrase, "If it isn’t a Flores it isn’t yo-yo."
The earliest contests, started by Flores in 1929, were endurance tests, won by the person who could keep the yo-yo spinning without a miss for the longest time. Other contest categories included the yo-yo thrown the farthest with a full return, and the largest number of perfect spins in a timed five-minutes. Prizes were given for handmade yo-yos, and Meisenheimer says that "yo-yos made out of bicycle wheels and wood barrel tops were not uncommon submissions." Contests were commonly held in theatres.
A businessman named Donald F. Duncan saw the Flores Yo-Yo and bought the rights, trademark, and company from Flores in 1932 for a quarter of a million dollars–a fortune in the Depression. He began manufacturing what became the American standard: the "Duncan Yo-Yo." He had the name "yo-yo" trademarked, forcing competitors to market "whirl-a-gigs" and "twirlers."
Financially, the Duncan Yo-Yo Co. has had its ups and downs (sorry, couldn’t resist). In the 1930s, the Duncan Yo-Yo was promoted by groups of Filipino yo-yo experts, who would stand outside local candy stores or movie houses, doing yo-yo street theatre for the crowds. There were promotional contests. During the Great Depression, yo-yos sold well–they were cheap, fun, and long-lasting. About the only thing that could go wrong was the string breaking, and replacing the string was cheap and easy. The disks were made of various hardwoods, and could survive hours of being hit against cement sidewalks (like in the trick called "walking the dog").
Sales declined after WWII, but in 1962 Duncan launched a TV ad campaign and sales again skyrocketed. The company sold a record 45 million yo-yos one year in the U.S., whose child population at the time was only 40 million.
The Flambeau Plastics company of Baraboo, Wisconsin, purchased Duncan Toys in 1968 and made plastic Duncan Yo-yos (same shape and size as the original wooden model, the Duncan 77). They fought to keep the name "yo-yo" trademarked, but that battle was lost in 1965–the Federal Court of Appeals ruled that the term "yo-yo" was so widespread that it had become part of common speech. (Aside: The word "yo-yo" has now taken on wider significance, and can mean "to vacillate" as when applied to a politician, or "stupid" as when applied to a jerk.)
The company didn’t do well through the 70s and 80s: the inexpensive product had low profit margins and marketing and advertising costs were high. But there was another boom in the 90s as Baby Boomer parents introduced the toy to their children.
How do yo-yos work? Damned if I know–I could never do anything but make them go down and come back, and even then I only had about a 50% success rate. Good thing I work for Cecil, rather than sitting up in a tree trying to bring down small game. Scientific jargon on the physics/mechanics would probably be something like "kinetic energy in a rotating mass." If you care, check out the article by Wolfgang Burger in the March-April 1984 issue of American Scientist, "The Yo-Yo: A Toy Flywheel."
Enthusiasts speak excitedly of the popularity and global reach of yo-yos. There are about a dozen different models of Duncan Yo-Yo today, and you can find versions with innovations that Pedro Flores could scarcely imagine, the least of which is sparkly lights and glitter. There are debates about what string to use (cotton or silk or . . .). Yo-yo experiments were tried in 1985 and 1992 on the space shuttle (the yo-yo wouldn’t "sleep" in microgravity). June 6 (Donald Duncan’s birthday) is National Yo-Yo Day (bet you didn’t know that). For those of us of a certain age, the "Yo-Yo Man" will always be little Tommy Smothers. Yo-yo contests are held under strict competitive rules. Collector yo-yos can run into thousands of dollars–check out Lucky’s Collector’s Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos for some jaw-dropping examples and great pictures.
For more, get in touch with the American Yo-Yo Association, 627 – 163rd Street South, Spanaway, Washington 98387 (phone 707-542-9696). If you’re outside North America, check with your local Yo-Yo Association.
Why Didn’t I Think of That? Bizarre Origins of Ingenious Inventions We Couldn’t Live Without, by Allyn Freeman and Bob Golden (John Wiley & Sons, 1997)
Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things, by Charles Panati (Harper & Row, 1987)
"History of the Yo-Yo," article by Valerie Kranz, Spinastics Skill Toys, Inc., 1996
"Pedro Flores," article by Lucky J. Meisenheimer, in American Yo-Yo Association Newsletter, September 1997
Lucky’s Collector’s Guide to 20th Century Yo-Yos, by Lucky J. Meisenheimer, M.D. (Oct 1999)
. . . and dozens of websites–search under "yo-yo" or check with the American Yo-Yo Association.
Send questions to Cecil via email@example.com.
STAFF REPORTS ARE WRITTEN BY THE STRAIGHT DOPE SCIENCE ADVISORY BOARD, CECIL'S ONLINE AUXILIARY. THOUGH THE SDSAB DOES ITS BEST, THESE COLUMNS ARE EDITED BY ED ZOTTI, NOT CECIL, SO ACCURACYWISE YOU'D BETTER KEEP YOUR FINGERS CROSSED.