The history of the Magic 8 Ball

Mattel’s making a Magic 8 Ball movie. The toy’s history involves ghosts and a billiards company.

Following the success of Barbie, Mattel is planning other toy-inspired films, apparently including a horror-comedy written by Cocaine Bear’s Jimmy Warden and starring… the Magic 8 Ball.

Magic 8 Ball

But how did a fortune-telling billiards ball come about anyhow?

A good old-fashioned seance

Cincinnati clairvoyant Laura C. Cooper Pruden was one of several mediums cashing in on the spiritualism craze of the early 20th century.

She specialized in slate writing. Under a table, she and her clients each held a corner of an enclosed blackboard with a piece of chalk inside. Her free hand remained on the table, yet the chalk wrote on its own.

“It was the strangest feeling to hold the slate and to feel the thrill and vibration of the pencil as it worked away inside,” Sherlock Holmes author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle — a noted fan of Pruden’s — once wrote.

Family guise

Pruden’s device was called the Psycho-Slate. Her son, inventor Albert Carter, built on the idea, creating the Syco-Seer: The Miracle Home Fortune Teller.

  • A die with “answers” written on each side was suspended inside a liquid-filled, windowed tube. Ask a question, flip it, see your fate.

Carter enlisted his Ohio Mechanics Institute grad Abe Bookman, to help mass produce it. Carter filed for a patent for a “liquid filled die agitator” in 1944, and he and Bookman formed Alabe Crafts to sell it.

Unfortunately, Carter never saw his invention become a success. He died of a hemorrhage in 1948.

Bookman carried on

He iterated, producing a smaller version, then changing its shape from a cylinder to a sphere, akin to a crystal ball.

It didn’t sell well, but it did catch the attention of Brunswick Billiards, which wanted it as a promotional product… shaped like an eight ball.

The eight ball version sold well enough that Bookman kept selling it, even after the contract expired.

In 1971…

… Bookman sold Alabe to Ideal Toys, founded by teddy bear inventors Morris and Rose Michtom. View-Master International acquired Ideal in 1984, Tyco Toys acquired View-Master in 1989, and Mattel acquired Tyco in 1997 for $755m ($1.4B today).

The Magic 8 Ball has remained popular over the years, selling 1m+ units per year as of 2012. And now, it’s gonna be a movie star.

BTW: The Ouija board follows a similar trajectory, including a huge toy company — Hasbro — turning it into a movie. Read all about it here, or listen here.

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Topics: Entertainment

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