Creating a novelty object is useful for designers today, as they are recognised as something innovative, creative and new. As stated in the “Principia Designae” ‘Economically speaking, novelty is an essential component of competitiveness in the market’ (Taura, T. 2016) Therefore, in this essay I’m going to explore the evolution of the yo-yo; a novel invention, taking a multidisciplinary approach in relation to how the yo-yo effects religion, science and art. When you think of the yo-yo, you may associate it perhaps with a short-lived fad of your youth or a playground pastime, when in fact, through time, the yo-yo has been a global phenomenon, with its design adapting towards contemporary culture.
It is believed that the yo-yo is one of the world’s oldest toys, second only to the doll. Historians have speculated that the yo-yo was developed in Ancient China, as the yo-yo has many similarities to the “diabolo”, both having a similar simple string and disk design. However, the only proof of the yo-yo first existing is in Ancient Greece around 500 B.C from a Greek vase that shows a young boy playing with a yo-yo 1. Materials that could have been used to make these ancient toys, such as wood, metal, stone and terra-cotta, often featured drawn images of their gods printed onto them. Many of the terra-cotta yo-yos were found on temple sights as Greek children ceremonially gave their toy to the gods as a coming of age offering, symbolic of growing up and leaving childhood toys behind. It’s interesting how this once simple toy became a symbol of religion to the Greek culture. In Jean-Marie Guyau’s book of The Non-religion of the Future: A Sociological Study, she states ‘The trouble that is apparent in a child of whatever deranges his established association of ideas has been explained by pure and simple horror of novelty’ (Guyau 1854-1888). In this, she talks about children’s association with objects and religion, stating children aren’t able to ‘distinguish the object of an act from its form’. (Guyau 1854-1888). On the one hand, It’s fascinating how something so novel like the yo-yo can become significant as an act of religion in this ritual, despite having no religious purposes.
The yo-yo is also associated with other cultures, contributing to ancient art. Images of young children using the toy on the walls of ancient Egyptian temples and on a wooden box in India depicted a scene of a girl playing with a yo-yo 2. Again reinforcing the idea that the yo-yo was more than just a short-time fad, but rather a catalyst of entertainment for young people around the world, despite their backgrounds and religion it served the same purpose of an entertaining toy. Historians have speculated that the yo-yo was also used in the Philippines as a device to hunt animals from the treetops and in some cases, the yo-yo was thought to have been used as a weapon during battles between the local tribes. Proving the yo-yo to have multiple uses. This is what I find interesting about the design of the yo-yo, because the simplicity of the design does not prohibit its multiple functions, but rather encourages them.
The yo-yo also contributed towards literature, in 1791, the Swedish Enlightenment writer Johan Henric Kellgren mentions the yo-yo (named as joujou) as ‘joujou de Normandie’ in his most famous poem “Dumboms leverne”. I found it interesting that the yo-yo has this kind of effect; this lead me to research some more poems, and I found a lot of poems using the yo-yo as a symbol of being pulled back-and-forth. For example, I found a poem by Christin H on hellopoetry.com, ‘You had me.
Hanging from your finger
Like a yoyo.
Spinning at the speed of leaving
In a desperate attempt to unwind
At your feet.’
Because the yo-yo is so well known, it is understandable to be used symbolically in literature, moreover proving the novelty item as a more profound shift on society.
The yo-yo was also used for scientific and mathematical purposes, for example the yo-yo model was used to describe the shape and physics of the earth and how it rotates in space. In Jeffrey Yi-Lin Forrest’s book on Systemic Yoyos: Some Impacts of the Second Dimension he describes some of the experiments in which the yo-yo was used to demonstrate the earth’s orbit and other physical theories. It’s stated in the preface of the book that the yo-yo can be used ‘as a systemic method to analyse problems as well as an intuition of thinking’ (Lin 2009). Moreover, I found this particularly interesting as the yo-yo became sub-sequential for important scientifical theories that changed the future of how we study the earth, furthermore proving the importance of what was seemingly a novelty item, but then became a structure of scientific importance.
The yo-yo again contributed to science as I found while doing my research, that the yo-yo is one of the few toys that have made it into space. In 1985, yo-yo went into space as part of a series of experiments by NASA called “Toys in Space”, an educational experiment for children, where various toys were sent into space and tested to see how the laws of physics and weightlessness affect the behaviors of household toys. The yo-yo was used to see what effect microgravity would have on the object. What they discovered was that a yo-yo could be released at slow speeds and gracefully move along the string. However, without the downward force of gravity, the yo-yo could not spin against the loop at the end of the string and so, rebounded up the string. It was also found that the yo-yo must be thrown, not dropped, as there was no gravity to pull it down. And on July 31, 1992, the yo-yo (an SB-2) again made its way into space, on the Space Shuttle Atlantis, this time for an educational video including slow-motion yo-ing.
The power of novelty toys is somewhat overlooked, when in turn, it’s interesting how something as simple as a novelty toy can have an effect on the brain, more specifically children. A study by Henderson, B. and Moore, S.G1 looked at how children’s responses to objects differing in novelty in relation to level of curiosity and adult behavior. The study conducted with a number of children between the ages of 4 to 9, spending a median time with a novelty object (a magic wand), and a median time with puzzle (a trick box). The results of this experiment was that children spent more time on the novelty object, that serves no purpose compared to the ‘trick box’, ‘The results support the hypothesis that children would show a significantly stronger tendency to experiment with the magic wand than with the trick box.’1 Thus, proving novelty objects shouldn’t be overlooked by designers. When it comes to the yo-yo it interests me as to why it’s been such a popular toy among children for thousands of years despite its purpose to be seen as somewhat pointless – however this study enforces that toys that seemingly serve very little purpose proves more popular among children due to their simplicity.
On the other hand, I also looked into Carl Ratner’s book on Macro Cultural Psychology: A Political Philosophy of Mind, in which Ratner talks about how children in the past had to use their imagination on seemingly neutral objects to induce entertainment, as he states ‘in the past, excitement came from children’s imaginatively modifying a few objects in multiple ways to generate multiple uses of the same few objects’ (Ratner, C. 2012.) however, Ratner then explains how consumerism required a reversal of this form as he reiterates ‘innovation came from manufactures, who designed novel objects for children who no longer had to exercise their imagination’ (Ratner, C. 2012). Thus Ratner is enforcing how novelty toys such as the yo-yo became so popular and commercially successful as a children’s toy as it only had one purpose: to be a novelty toy.
During the late 1920s, a man named Pedro Flores caught onto this idea and trademarked the toy started selling the toy under the name ‘yo-yo’, a term founded in the Philippines, which additionally became a business under the name ‘Yo-yo Manufacturing Company’. This is the pivotal time when the yo-yo became more of a product to become the novelty yo-yo we know in contemporary culture. The world was then introduced to tricks while using the yo-yo, such as the ‘sleeper’. This intrigued me as this is what I associate the yo-yo with, as the tricks is what makes it entertaining. Due to the number of new possibilities for tricks with the yo-yo, Pedro set up competitions to demonstrate the new tricks that could be done, perhaps as a marketing scheme so more people would buy the product to initiate in these competitions, for example these competitions featured contests of who could throw their yo-yo the furthest with it returning fully and who could spin it the quickest. This continued throughout decade, from the 1980s to the 1990s. In 1992, the first World Yo-Yo Championships was held for enthusiasts to freestyle with their yo-yos. After this, freestyles became a major part of yo-yo competitions. It interested me that this seemed a common theme within novelty toys, by creating a competition of who can use the product the best, the product became more desirable. Moreover, perhaps supporting Ratner’s theory on the simpler the toy, the more successful it will be for consumerism.
Due to the rising popularity of the toy, the yo-yo production became a growing design-based industry. High street companies such as Duncan, YoYoFactory, and Yomega, reinforcing the
In recent years, technological movement has affected a multitude of the products we use, and the novel yo-yos has been no exception. Moving onto the 1970s and 80s the toy was becoming increasingly popular, breeding a number of innovations for the yo-yo as manufacturers were seeing the benefit of its supply. Therefore, the yo-yo was used by designers were inspired to make it something new again, hoping it would become more popular to a modern audience of children. In 1980, Mike Caffrey applied for a patent on an auto-return mechanism for a yo-yo that consisting of several different embodiments for an internal clutch. The first accepted design by Caffrey was the “Yomega Brain” in 1984, which became easier to perform tricks – and is now the most popular yo-yo to date. The modern yo-yo is now more complex than it was before, that the point of having a yo-yo is to do tricks, rather than just for timeless play. Thus, again relating back to Ratner’s theology about how novelty items must change and create more in order for it to stay successful, for example ‘stimulation and change had to come from external commodities, not from internal creativity. In this way imagination, creativity and agency became commodified’. (Ratner, C 2012)
In conclusion, the yo-yo has been many things through its extensive history, firstly, being a child’s toy as the most blatant concept, but also contributing towards ancient Greece’s to ancient China’s art and history, to becoming significant in scientific experiments and also being referenced in literature. When referencing back to the question, I believe that the yo-yo is more than just a gimmick, or a pointless novelty toy, it is a phenomenon that has lead to a profound shift on how we approach design.