Nerf products

Nerf Story

Updated: January 3rd, 2016
Author: Reyn Guyer

By 1968, my father and I were co-owners of the in-store display business he had begun in 1956. As I described in the previous chapter, my disenchantment with the company’s business model was a large part of what led us to the development of Twister and the surprise success that followed. I wanted to continue in this new direction and develop more toys and games, so I struck a deal with my father that gave him the entire display business and half of the proceeds from the Twister royalties. Looking back, I am grateful that my father could see that I needed to try my hand at the business of toys and games.

I chose to call the enterprise Winsor Concepts. The building that I had found and purchased for the display business four years before had far more empty space than the company could dream of using. So I chose to rent some of the unused space.

I built one room that was octagonal, with rough-cedar walls and a carpet to deaden sound. It had a card table and six chairs for playing new board game inventions. It also had seating around a coffee table, with a sofa and matching chairs for casual meetings.

In the adjacent room, my fellow-workers and I each had workstations and drawing boards that were placed in a large circle, and we all faced the middle of the room. My hope was that this arrangement might encourage give-and-take and involvement in each other’s projects. In retrospect, I think it had a very positive effect on encouraging us to be supportive of each other’s undertakings. There was a third room that was filled with lathes, drills, saws and tool benches. Beyond that workroom, we had access to a wide open area for a variety of play testing.

The team members I chose came from a variety of disciplines. Norton Cross was an acquaintance whom I knew was always coming up with ideas, none of which had yet found a home. Norton also served as our head of sales, whom I would step in to support when necessary. This arrangement also allowed me to be more focused on product development and not in constant contact with toy and game companies. Marty Lundquist came with me from my father’s company, as did Kenny Barnes. Each of them felt that toy and game development would be more exciting than the display business. Marty became a fine model maker and Ken was an excellent product illustrator. The fifth memberber, Will Kruse, came aboard after Marty suggested that his creativity would benefit us.

Every Monday morning, the team would meet to plan the allocation of projects and responsibilities for the coming week. Each project had a leader who was responsible for coordinating the use of each team member’s skills to create and test the ideas that were essential to the project. At least once a week, teams of two or three would head out to or two stores that sold toys and games with the purpose of staying current with what was happening at the retail level.

After the first eight months of operation, our Winsor Concepts had developed no new concepts to show for our efforts. One day, Norton Cross scheduled an afternoon testing of a caveman game he had been developing. It was another “players are the game pieces” concept, where kids would walk around on small sheets of plastic painted to look like stepping-stones. Each player had some coins, which they could keep or hide under a stepping-stone, and two gray foam “rocks.” The players threw the foam rocks at their opponents to stop them from stealing coins from under the stepping-stones.

The spirit of our testing program was that no matter how doubtful an idea appeared to be, we would give it a try. I strongly encouraged team members to withhold judgment on a new project prior to testing it because I hoped that something unusual might jump out at us from virtually nowhere. On this afternoon, with that spirit in mind, it happened.

As the caveman game disintegrated, Will Kruse took a couple of the foam rocks and started tossing them around. Soon, an all-out battle ensued as we pelted each other with the rocks. As the laughter faded, we all realized that something very exciting had just happened. Here were five, supposedly grown-up guys, hurling chunks of lightweight foam at each other, and no one was hurt. We had inadvertently created the world's first indoor ball and broken the parental rule “no throwing balls in the house”.

Our next move was to acquire all sorts of different densities of foam and cut them into different sizes of balls. After some digging, we found distributors of the foam material, which was essentially used as padding for shipping delicate objects, and discovered that the foam could be shaped with super-heated wire.

We had some different-sized foam balls made, and because we were convinced we couldn’t just sell a small foam ball, we created a broad range of games that employed the balls, such as basketball, dodge ball, indoor baseball, and so on.

Next we headed out to East Longmeadow, Massachusetts, to see Mel Taft and our friends at Milton Bradley, who were doing such a super job with Twister. We were a bit shocked and disappointed when they turned us down. They said they couldn’t see adding a toy line to their already extensive line of game and puzzle products.

From there, it was off to Parker Brothers and a visit with their head of new product development, Henry Simmons. We were disappointed when Henry told us that he had convinced his somewhat reluctant management to test market the basic product— just the ball. And so they did. They called it NERF. To our great surprise, the NERF ball—just a ball in a little square box—sold by the millions. Who knew the world wanted a ball that wouldn’t bounce?

The amount of bounce or rebound an object has when it strikes another object is measured by the coefficient of restitution, or COR. When we applied for a patent on the NERF ball, one of our major claims was that the ball had a very low COR. It didn’t bounce very high, and it was incredibly soft. The promotional copy on the original NERF ball box, released by Parker Brothers in 1969, read “SAFE! The Nerf Ball is made of incredibly soft and spongy synthetic foam. Throw it around indoors; you can’t damage lamps or break windows. You can’t hurt babies or old people.”

Because we had developed a whole line of games and toys that used lightweight foam as the core idea, Parker Brothers didn’t want us to take our new foam concepts to other companies. After much consideration, I concluded that Parker Brothers had proven that they were excellent marketers of their products (their most successful game was Monopoly) and, in time, would do a good job of expanding a line of foam products. I agreed to give them the exclusive rights to the idea, and, in return, they agreed that we would participate in any and all products that they marketed that used expandible polyether and polyester foam. At the time it was a risky move for me and my little company. But, in time it has proved to be a pretty good choice.

People often ask whether NERF was the name that we chose for the wider range of foam products. The answer is no. Our in-house working name while we were developing the product ideas made reference to addendums to enhance a woman’s presence. We called it ‘falsie-ball’. It was after our line of foam products hit the market under the name NERF that we learned where the name came from. One of the people involved in promoting the line suggested naming it after the foam-padded roll bars on Jeeps, which off-roaders had dubbed “NERF bars.” The name stuck.

I still have one of the original foam balls, cut by hand with scissors. During the celebration of line, I used a small mahogany box lined with black velour to display the original ball. It was a useful prop during television interviews.