What’s the purpose of the little ball inside a Hula Hoop?

Dear Cecil:

I knew a woman who would walk through campus Hula Hooping, all the while reading a physics textbook. Ever since then I've been wondering: does that little ball inside the Hula Hoop do more than provide sound effects? Is it necessary to keep the Hula Hoop going? Please end my sleepless nights!

Cecil replies:

You can’t sleep, Lisa kid, try Sominex. You want to explore the frontiers of knowledge, keep reading. We called up the Wham-O company, maker of the Hula Hoop (as well as the Frisbee and the Super Ball), hoping for a little technical insight. Everybody we talked to said the little ball — actually three or four steel BBs — was just for sound effects. We learned that the original Hula Hoop, which Cecil had known and loved as a child, was silent. But later generations, their senses dulled by constant TV viewing, required more sonic razzle-dazzle. The first noisy hoops, called Shoop Shoop Hula Hoops, had pieces of walnut shell sliding around inside. Later this gave way to the BBs now found in all hoops.

Swell, we said, but are you sure another reason you put in the BBs wasn’t that you were down-sizing the plastic in order to goose the profit margin and you needed the extra weight to give the hoop some heft? Cross our hearts, they said, and we believed them. However, the most senior among them, the plant manager, had been with the firm only 20 years, whereas the Hula Hoop was 30 years old. Who knows what chicanery may have taken place in those early days?

So we decided to put the matter to the practical test. We went out to Toys “R” Us and bought a regulation Hula Hoop ($3.69 plus tax). We practiced diligently until we could keep the thing going for five minutes at a crack, no small task if you haven’t done it for 25 years. (Cecil notes happily that he got the hang of it before Mrs. Adams, who normally delights in humiliating him in matters athletic.)

Then we took out the BBs and tried again. Result: no observable difference, except that we were now free of that godforsaken racket and could concentrate on the Zen of the Hula Hoop experience. My advice to you parents: deep-six the little noisemakers for good. (I mean the BBs, silly.) The kids want more stimulation, tell ’em to go see RoboCop. The interval between the Terrible Twos and the onset of heavy metal is short enough as it is.

Send questions to Cecil via cecil@straightdope.com.

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