See Into the Future With the Magic 8 Ball

Retro Staff 2 Comments

Magic 8 BallMaking its debut in 1950, the Magic 8 Ball continues to bring laughter to the masses. I hope you have been lucky enough to own one, or perhaps know someone who did, because they are a lot of fun. They’re sort of like a fortune cookie, only better. You have control over the subject of the question with the 8 ball, as opposed to a fortune cookie where the subject is left to the luck of the draw.

If you haven’t operated one of these, they’re pretty simple. First, you hold the ball so that you are looking at the number 8 on the face of the ball, with the answer window pointed toward the floor. Ask the ball a “yes” or “no” question, and then turn the ball over. Do not shake the ball, as it can cause air bubbles and make the answer impossible to read. Your answer will appear in the window.

With the traditional ball, there are 20 possible answers: 10 are affirmative, 5 are negative and 5 are non-committal. Thus, the response can be frustrating.

My older brother received a Magic 8 Ball one year for Christmas. I thought (being 3 years younger than him) that it truly possessed magical powers. Adding to the “mystery” surrounding the Magic 8 Ball with its powers of foresight was the fact that we were only allowed to access its powers under my older brother’s very close supervision. We would ask it a few serious questions to start. Inevitably we would get progressively sillier with our questions and end up spiraling down into total goofiness and fits of laughter. My brother would then put the ball safely back up high on one of his shelves until we would need to consult its powers again.

Spiritual Origins…

The origins of the Magic 8 Ball are rooted in the Spiritualist community, in which séances are held so people can try to communicate with the dead. Back in the 1940s, there was a young man in Cincinnati whose mother took advantage of the Spiritualist movement by holding phony séances. She used a slate on which the spirits supposedly wrote their answers to her questions. In actuality, his mother was doing the writing herself. This sham inspired her son, Alfred Carter, to come up with a device that could predict the future, without input from an operator. The resulting invention, made in 1944, was called the Syco-Seer: The Miracle Home Fortune-Teller. It consisted of a tube within which were two chambers filled with a dark liquid. Within each chamber was a die with answers printed on it. When the tube was turned over, an answer was displayed in the window on one end. Turning the tube over would reveal an answer on the opposite end. Carter showed prototypes of his invention to a shop owner who expressed an interest in selling them in his store. An alcoholic, Carter acquired the proper patents and then handed his Syco-Seer business over to his cousin, Abe Bookman. They created the company Alabe Crafts to produce the tubes.

Changes were made to improve the Syco-Seer and to reduce manufacturing costs. The tube was made shorter and there was only a single window on the end. The name was changed to Syco-Slate: The Pocket Fortune-Teller, and a gypsy woman was shown on the label. Women were hired in the department stores to dress up as gypsies and demonstrate the Syco-Slate.

Magic 8 Ball

The Magic 8 Ball was first marketed as a paper weight.

In 1948 the tube was changed to an iridescent crystal ball. This change wasn’t very popular but it must have given the people at Brunswick Billiards an idea as, in 1950, they commissioned a promotional Syco-Slate that resembled the billiards 8 ball. The Magic 8 Balls were very popular and when the promotion was over Alabe Crafts began making the Magic 8 Ball to sell to the public.

In the beginning the Magic 8 Ball was marketed as a paperweight. Sales permanently improved when it was later sold as a toy for children.

Today, about 1 million Magic 8 Balls are sold every year. The classic toy is appreciated by children and adults alike, and can often be found on desks in corporate offices.

Do you remember your first experience with the Magic 8 Ball? Do you still consult one today?

Last updated: Feb 12, 2009
Filed under: Classic Toys Tagged with: Classic Toys