Skip to main content

The Curious History of the Magic 8-Ball

With the possible exception of the Ouija board, the best-selling prognostication device in American history is the Magic 8-Ball. According to Mattel, over one million Magic 8-Balls are sold each year. I've owned one, and there's a good chance that you have too. However, while almost every man, woman and child is familiar with this beloved toy, few people are aware of its curious history.

Here are some truly fascinating facts about the Magic 8-Ball and its inventor, Albert Carter.

1. Carter was the son of a real-life fortune-teller

The inspiration behind Albert Carter's toy was a divination device used by his mother, Mary, who eked out a living as a professional clairvoyant in Cincinnati, Ohio, during the early 1900s. It was based on a tool used by psychics for "automatic writing"-- the supposedly supernatural phenomenon of jotting down words without conscious thought.

2. Carter's toy was originally known as the Syco-Seer

1945 ad for Carter's Syco-Seer

In 1945, Carter's invention hit toy store shelves, although his original creation bore little resemblance to the fortune-telling toy we know and love today. The Syco-Seer operated on the same principle as the Magic 8-Ball, though it was not round. It was a 7-inch tube filled with a dark inky substance and contained a traditional 6-sided die with various answers printed on the sides.

3. Alabe Crafts is a mash-up of the names of Carter and his cousin

The Magic 8-Ball design we are all familiar with today was created not by Albert Carter, but a mechanical engineer by the name of Abe Bookman (who was also his cousin). In the early days, Magic 8-Balls were manufactured by a company known as Alabe Crafts, which is a name formed by combining the names of the company's founders: Al (Carter) and Abe (Bookman).

Alabe Crafts enjoyed considerable popularity as a novelty company during its heyday in the 1940s and 50s, producing such classic toys as Hook-a-Crook and 3D Chess. Less popular, however was "Poverty Pup"-- a dog-shaped piggy bank which debuted in 1967. Alabe Crafts was sold to Ideal a few years later, and Ideal was then sold to Tyco Toys. Tyco was purchased by Mattel in 1997.

4. Albert Carter never actually got to see a Magic 8-Ball

Although Carter is credited as the toy's inventor, he never actually got to see the familiar black-and-white orb known as the Magic 8-Ball. Albert passed away in 1948, a couple of years before his cousin perfected the design. At the time of his demise, the toy was still known as the Syco-Seer.

5. Liquid-Filled Die Agitator

As far as the U.S. Patent Office is concerned, there's no such thing as a Magic 8-Ball. Abe Bookman's patent (#3,119,621) was officially granted on January 28, 1964, under the heading: Liquid Filled Die Agitator Containing a Die Having Raised Indicia on the Facets Thereof.

As to the chemical composition of the mysterious blue liquid? It's just a mixture of alcohol and dye.

6. Abe and Al were a couple of optimistic fellas

Although the Magic 8-Ball has undergone a handful of minor tweaks during its long history, one of the toy's most enduring and recognizable features is its 20-sided icosahedron die. Of the 20 possible answers given by the Magic 8-Ball, 10 are affirmative, 5 are negative and 5 are neutral.

7. The Magic 8-Ball wouldn't have existed without Brunswick Billiards.

1951 ad for the Magic 8-Ball

By the early 1950s, sales of the Syco-Seer had plummeted and the company founded by the two cousins from Cincinnati seemed to be on the verge of financial ruin. That is, until another Cincinnati company-- Brunswick Billiards-- approached Abe Bookman and asked him to create a billiard ball-shaped version of the Syco-Seer for a promotional campaign. In November of 1951 Alabe began marketing the toy as the "Magic 8-Ball", with a retail price of $1.98. This, coincidentally, was the same price as its predecessor, the Syco-Seer. The redesigned product was an instant hit, and the rest is history.

Popular posts from this blog

The Incest Capital of the World?

At the far eastern edge of Kentucky, nestled in Appalachia, resides Letcher County. In spite of its isolation and poverty (approximately 30% of the county's population lives below the poverty line), Letcher County has managed to grow at an impressive rate, from a population of just 9,172 in 1900 to a present-day population of nearly 25,000. However, even if Letcher County tripled or quadrupled its present population, there's still a pretty good chance that virtually all of the county's inhabitants would be related to each other-- thanks to one particularly fertile family whose astounding rate of reproduction can put even the friskiest rabbit to shame.

Around the year 1900, Letcher County was the home of a man by the name of Jason L. Webb, who made national headlines for having the one of the largest families in the world. According to newspaper reports of the era, Jason had 19 children, 175 grandchildren, and 100 great-grandchildren. Perhaps even more impressive was his b…

The Ticking Tombstone of Landenberg

If you look closely at a map of Pennsylvania, you'll see an anomalous semi-circular border at the extreme southeastern part of the state. This circle, known officially as the "Twelve Mile Circle", serves as the border between the Keystone State and Delaware. Much of the strange circle is surrounded by Chester County, one of the three original Pennsylvania counties created by William Penn in 1682. While there are many historical points of interest in Chester County, few are strange or as steeped in legend as the Ticking Tombstone.

Near the London Tract Meeting House in Landenberg is an old graveyard which contains a tombstone which is said to make eerie ticking noises, much like the ticking of a pocketwatch. Landenberg locals claim that the ticking is the result of two very famous surveyors who arrived in town during the 1760s- Charles Mason and Jeremiah Dixon.  A young child supposedly swallowed a valuable pocketwatch owned by Mason and later died, and the boy's head…

Jenny Hanivers, Mermaids, Devil Fish, and Sea Monks

Three centuries before P.T. Barnum attracted flocks of crowds with his mummified Fiji Mermaid (which turned out to be a papier-mâché creation featuring a monkey's head and a fish's body), sailors around the world had already began manufacturing "mermaids".  Known as Jenny Hanivers, these creations were often sold to tourists and provided sailors with an additional source of income.  These mummified creatures were produced by drying, carving, and then varnishing the carcasses of fish belonging to the order rajiformes- a group of flattened cartilaginous fish related to the shark which includes stingrays and skates.  These preserved carcasses can be made to resemble mermaids, dragons, angels, demons, and other mythical creatures.

Jenny Hanivers became popular in the mid-16th century, when sailors around the Antwerp docks began selling the novelties to tourists.  This practice was so common  in the Belgian city that it may have influenced the name; it is widely believed …