Richard Knerr (1925-2008) and Arthur "Spud" Melin (1924-2002), two University of Southern California graduates who had been friends since their teens, were unhappy with their jobs and decided to start their own business. In 1948, they formed the WHAM-O Manufacturing Company in the Knerr family garage in South Pasadena. Their first product was the Wham-O Slingshot, made of ash wood, which Knerr and Melin promoted by holding demonstrations of their own slingshot skills. The name "Wham-O" was inspired by the sound of the slingshot's shot hitting the target. The powerful slingshot was adopted by clubs for competitive target shooting and small game hunting. When they outgrew the garage, Knerr and Melin rented a building on S. Marengo Ave in Alhambra, California; and then, in 1955, moved their manufacturing plant to neighboring San Gabriel, California.
Products and marketing
A Frisbee made by Wham-O
In 1957, Wham-O, still a fledgling company, took the idea of Australian bamboo "exercise hoops", manufactured them in Marlex, and called their new product the Hula Hoop. (The name had been used since the 18th century, but till then had not been registered as a trademark.) The Hula-Hoop became the biggest toy fad in modern history. Twenty-five million were sold in four months, and in two years sales reached more than 100 million. "Hula Hoop mania" continued through the end of 1959, and netted Wham-O US$45 million (US$346M adjusted for inflation to 2012).
Shortly thereafter, the company had another huge success with the Frisbee. In 1955, inventor Fred Morrison began marketing a plastic flying disc called the Pluto Platter. He sold the design to Wham-O in 1957. In 1959, Wham-O marketed a slightly modified version of the toy, which they renamed the Frisbee--and once again a Wham-O toy became a common part of 1950s life.
The Frisbee and Hula Hoop created fads. With other products, Wham-O tried to capitalize on existing national trends. In the 1960s, they produced a US$119 do-it-yourself bomb shelter cover. In 1962, they sold a limbo dance kit to take advantage of that fad; and in 1975, when the movie Jaws was released, they sold plastic shark teeth.
Many products were not successful. During an African safari in the early 1960s, Melin discovered a species of fish that laid eggs in the mud during Africa's dry season. When the rains came, the eggs hatched and fish emerged overnight. This inspired Melin to create the Instant Fish product, an aquarium kit consisting of some of the fish eggs, and some mud in which to hatch them. Its debut at a New York toy fair made it wildly popular, but the eggs could not be produced fast enough, and the product was dropped.
Vintage Blue and white Wham-O Magic Window toy from the 1970s
Air Blaster (1965), which shot a puff of air that could blow out a candle at 20 feet
Bubble Thing (1988), a flexible plastic strip attached to a wand, which was dipped in soap solution and waved through the air to create giant soap bubbles. Ads claimed it could make bubbles "as long as a bus"
Magic Window (1971), two 30 by 30 centimetres (12 in × 12 in) oval plates of heavy clear plastic, with a narrow channel between them containing "microdium" (glass) crystal sands of varying colors that created complex patterns when shifted. The concept was the work of inventor Roy L. Cloutier, an engineering graduate of Michigan Tech. (In 2012, subsequent owners of the Magic Window patent marketed a modified version of the toy without Wham-O's involvement.)
EZ SPIN Foam Frisbee Disc (2008), a soft version of the Frisbee that could be used indoors
Wham-O's initial success was a result of its founders's insight. Knerr and Melin marketed their products directly to kids, including demonstrating their toys at playgrounds. They extensively researched new product ideas, including traveling around the world.
For many years, the company's strategy was to maintain eight to twelve simple, inexpensive products such as Frisbees, Super Balls, and Hula Hoops. New products were developed for tryout periods. Old ones were retired, for a few years or permanently, as their popularity waned. Since the toys were simple and inexpensive, they could be sold by a wide range of retailers, from large department stores to five and dime stores.
As Wham-O changed ownership, its new management adjusted this formula to accommodate the changing toy industry, which had increasingly complex toys and fewer distribution channels.
By 2006, Wham-O's product line included several groups of related items using licensed brand names. For example, Sea-Doo is a brand of personal water craft owned by Bombardier; Wham-O makes a Sea-Doo line of small inflatable rafts designed to be towed behind watercraft.
The company's lines are also more complex, and grouped in related categories--for example, the Sea-Doo line (about a dozen products), several Slip 'N Slide variations, and a group of "lawn games".
On January 31, 2011, Wham-O announced an agreement with ICM, the agency representing Atari video games, to represent Wham-O in movies, television, music, and online content based around its toys.
As of 2017, Wham-O is focused on creating recreational products that are fun to use and motivate people to be more active outdoors. Their marketing strategy, primarily via social media, seeks to motivate people to play outside and share their experiences with others online.
Frisbee political campaign advertisement designed by San Francisco-based advertising executive Bob Gardner of Gardner Communications as part of U.S. President Gerald Ford's 1976 advertising team and given to Ford at the 1976 Republican National Convention. At the time, Gardner's company also held the Frisbee advertising account.
1948: WHAM-O founded. For about a year in the 1950s, the company markets their sporting goods under the name WAMO. Customers don't care for the change, and it is dropped.
1957: WHAM-O acquires the rights to the Pluto Platter from Fred Morrison and renames it Frisbee.
1997: Wham-O becomes independent again when an investment group purchases it from Mattel
2002: Founder Arthur "Spud" Melin dies
January 2006: Wham-O is sold for ~ US$80 million to Cornerstone Overseas Investment Limited, a Chinese company that owns or controls five factories in China. The same month, Wham-O donates the office files, photographs and films of Dan "Stork" Roddick, Wham-O's director of sports promotion from 1975–1994, to the Western Historical Manuscript Collection, as Midwest Disc Sports Collection accession 5828. (WHMC, at the University of Missouri, Columbia, is a joint collection with the State Historical Society of Missouri.)