Edison, Bell, the Wright Brothers -- sure, their inventions changed the world, but they never seemed to think up anything for the kids. If they had, there might have been a big payday waiting for them. In 2009, the toy industry generated more than $21 billion in revenue despite a down economy, and that figure doesn't include candy, clothing and all sorts of other things made specifically for kids [source: NPD].
Inventing for kids can reward more than bank accounts. For instance, Ralph Baer, known as the "Father of Video Games" for inventing the first video game console, was awarded a National Medal of Technology by President Bush in 2006 [source: Hawkins]. So which inventions for kids landed in our top five? Read on to find out.
Starting our list of inventions with a bang -- or a pop, at least -- is the toy balloon. Blow one up and bop it around or fill one with helium and watch it fly. You could make a strong case that balloons, at just a few cents apiece, provide the highest fun-to-cost ratio on the planet.
Although toy balloons have been made from latex since the early 19th century, the first toy balloons were made of something a little harder to stomach -- animal intestines. After cleaning them out and stretching them, they could be filled with air, just like the balloons you buy at the store. In fact, the Aztecs even created balloon shaped like animals this way as part of certain religious ceremonies [source: Merlin].
Thankfully, manipulating animal entrails is no longer a part of the balloon-making process. Instead, balloon molds are dipped into vats of pigmented latex and allowed to dry. Once the latex is pulled away from the mold, the balloon is ready to hit the shelves. Fortunately, balloons are extremely cheap to produce. Otherwise, balloon enthusiasts like Treb Heining wouldn't be able to create the massive spectacles seen at events like the Olympics and the Super Bowl. Heining certainly wouldn't have been able to coordinate the world's largest balloon launch for the United Way, where he released 1.4 million balloons at once [source: Seattle Times]. But whether you have a million balloons or just one, you're in for some fun.
When car seats were first created, they were designed more to keep children from crawling around the car than for safety. Fortunately, car seats have come a long way since those early days. Today's models cut the likelihood of a fatality resulting from a crash in half when used properly, saving hundreds of lives every year in the process [source: CDC]. So even if you don't live in one of the dozens of states that hand out heavy fines for car seat violations, you should always strap your child into a car or booster seat no matter how short the trip.
Of course, you'll also need to make sure you're using the right type of car or booster seat for your child and that you're using it properly. A study of 1,000 Canadian drivers found that up to 80 percent of parents use their car seats incorrectly, placing children in the wrong type of seat for their age, not tightening the straps properly and making a number of other potentially dangerous mistakes [source: CBC News]. In addition to following the car seat manufacturer's instructions, make sure to remember the general guidelines for keeping your kids safe in the car. For instance, infants should be placed in rear-facing car seats while toddlers should ride in forward-facing seats, and whenever possible, children should always ride in the rear seat of the vehicle.
Inventions aren't always the result of tireless research and endless prototypes. The Kellogg brothers invented corn flakes after letting a batch of boiled wheat go stale. Percy Spencer invented the microwave oven only after accidentally melting a candy bar while tinkering with vacuum tubes.
In the case of the Hula-Hoop, Wham-O toy company founders Richard Knerr and Arthur "Spud" Melin didn't have to do much inventing at all. In 1958, after hearing about Australian children playing with bamboo hoops during gym class, the two decided to recreate the bamboo hoops out of a then cutting-edge plastic called Marlex. The rest is history. Wham-O's hoop sparked a craze that swept the nation, with 40 million selling in the first year alone, and international orders pushed the total over 100 million in the following years [sources: Martin, Massachusetts Institute of Technology].
While the Wham-O founders had a great eye for new toys, their business sense wasn't quite as strong. The demand for Hula-Hoops dried up as quickly as it had grown, leaving Wham-O with warehouses full of hoops and no buyers. In the end, Knerr and Melin netted only $10,000 in profit from the whole experience. The experience wasn't a total loss, however. Only a few years later, they would put their knowledge of toys to good use when they marketed their next big invention, the Frisbee.
The search for the perfect bubble gum wasn't an easy one. About a half century after manufacturers first produced chewing gum, Frank Fleer, founder of the Fleer Chewing Gum Company, made his first attempt at producing bubble gum. The resulting product was a mess -- literally. It was so sticky that the bubbles would stick to everything and ruin your clothes. What's more, Fleer's product was so thick that it was hard to chew and, worse still, virtually flavorless. The company would experiment with different bubblegum formulas for the next 20 years, but it would take an accountant at Fleer's by the name of Walter Diemer to concoct the perfect batch of bubble gum.
Using his free time to tinker with different ingredients, Diemer stumbled on the secret to creating the perfect bubble: latex. By adding a special type of latex and a bit of pink food coloring, Diemer created a recipe for bubble gum that would inspire countless copycats. Not only was Diemer's bubble gum easier to chew than Fleer's earlier concoctions, it wasn't nearly as sticky, easily coming off of skin and clothing.
Bubble gum turned out to be such a novel product that the Fleer Company hired a team of people responsible for teaching customers how to blow bubbles. Before long, Diemer's Dubble Bubble was delighting kids across the country and making millions of dollars for the Fleer Company in the process. These days, the bubblegum industry has blown up. Forty million pieces are sold in North America every day, equating to $500 million in sales every year [source: Rogers].
Nearly everyone can think back on their childhood and recall their favorite playground, but that wasn't always the case. Before the women's suffrage movement that began in the late 1800s, public funding for playgrounds was virtually nonexistent in the United States. As the movement gained strength, it brought more attention to children's welfare in the process [source: Johansson]. Before long, playgrounds were popping up in cities across the country, even in poor neighborhoods. Schools soon followed suit, emphasizing recreation and physical fitness more.
Although few would argue that widespread access to playgrounds has been a bad thing, they can be dangerous; more than 200,000 children end up in the emergency room every year due to playground-related accidents [source: CPSC]. The U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission advocates a number of common sense precautions parents can take to keep such injuries at a minimum, such as supervising children at play and ensuring the playground has a soft surface for children to land on. Still, some experts say that, while playgrounds should never be dangerous, an element of risk can actually help children learn their limits. Just keep that in mind the next time you see kids dangling by one foot from the monkey bars.
Think you can pass our technology timeline quiz? Test your knowledge to see if you know how long these technologies have been around.
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- Massachusetts Institute of Technology. "Inventor of the Week: Richard Knerr & 'Spud' Melin." (Jan. 6, 2011) http://web.mit.edu/invent/iow/hulahoop.html
- Mayo Clinic. "Car seat safety: Avoid 10 Common Mistakes." Nov. 5, 2010. (Jan. 6, 2011) http://www.mayoclinic.com/health/car-seat-safety/MY00824
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- National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). "Child Seats." (Jan. 6, 2011) http://www.nhtsa.gov/Safety/CPS
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- Oliver, Myrna. "A. Melin, 77; Introduced Frisbee and Hula Hoop." Los Angeles Times. June 30, 2002. (Jan. 6, 2011) http://articles.latimes.com/2002/jun/30/local/me-melin30
- Rogers, Amanda. "For 75 years, it's pop goes the bubble gum." Seattle Pi. April 21, 2003. (Jan. 6, 2011) http://www.seattlepi.com/food/118240_bubblegum21.html
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- Wham-O. "The History of Wham-O." (Jan. 6, 2011) http://www.wham-o.com/history.html