SuperBall

superball

A SuperBall or bouncy ball is a toy, invented in 1964 by chemist Norman Stingley by compressing a synthetic rubber material under high pressure. It is an extremely elastic ball made of Zectron, which contains the synthetic rubber polymer polybutadiene, as well as hydrated silica, zinc oxide, stearic acid, and other ingredients, vulcanized with sulfur at a temperature of 165 degrees Celsius and at a pressure of 3,500psi.

The Super Ball has an amazingly high coefficient of restitution. Dropped from shoulder level, balls snap nearly all the way back; thrown down by an average adult, it can leap over a three-story building. Toys similar to SuperBalls are more generally known as bouncy balls, a term which covers other more or less similar balls by different manufacturers with different formulations.

After Stingley invented the synthetic rubber, he tried to find uses for it and someone to manufacture it. He offered his invention to the Bettis Rubber Company (for whom he worked at the time). They turned him down because the material was not very durable. So, he took it to the toy company Wham-O and they worked on developing a more durable version. This version is still manufactured by Wham-O. ‘It took us nearly two years to iron the kinks out of Super Ball before we produced it,’ according to Richard Knerr, President of Wham-O. ‘It always had that marvelous springiness…. But it had a tendency to fly apart. We’ve licked that with a very high-pressure technique for forming it. Now we’re selling millions.’

When the SuperBall was first introduced, it became a fad. Peak production was over 170,000 superballs per day. By 1965 over six million had been sold, and US Presidential adviser McGeorge Bundy had five dozen superballs shipped to the White House for the amusement of the staff. Knowing that fads are often short-lived, Kerr said ‘Each Super Ball bounce is 92% as high as the last. If our sales don’t come down any faster than that, we’ve got it made.’ Initially the full size Super Ball sold for ninety-eight cents at retail; by the end of 1966 its colorful miniature versions sold for as little as ten cents in vending machines.

In the late 1960s Wham-O made a ‘giant’ superball, roughly the size of a bowling ball, as a promotional stunt. It fell from the 23rd story window of an Australian hotel and destroyed a parked convertible car on the 2nd bounce.

The composer Alcides Lanza, in his composition ‘Plectros III’ (1971), specified that the performer should use a pair of Superballs on sticks as mallets with which to strike and rub the strings and case of a piano. Lanza purchased several SuperBalls in 1965 as toys for his son, but soon he started experimenting with the sounds they made when rubbed along the frame or strings of a piano. Several years later, ‘Plectros III’ resulted.

After watching his children play with a Super Ball, Lamar Hunt, founder of the American Football League, coined the term ‘Super Bowl.’ In a 1966 letter to NFL commissioner Pete Rozelle, Hunt wrote, ‘I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.’ Although the leagues’ owners decided on the name ‘AFL-NFL Championship Game,’ the media immediately picked up on Hunt’s ‘Super Bowl’ name, which would become official beginning with the third annual game.

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