Then it came to him: a pogo stick. “I realized that, Hey, yeah, a pound of rubber could store enough energy to bounce a person five to six feet in the air.”
He built a frame with wooden planks from an old Ikea couch. Then he bought a roll of industrial-grade surgical tubing from a medical supply store. He fashioned a spring by looping the tubes from steel anchors at the frame’s bottom to hooks he’d drilled into the piston. When a rider jumped down, the piston would stretch the rubber tubes to four times their resting length.
After a few rounds of improvements, he asked his daughter’s gymnastics coach to give his pogo a bounce. “Within minutes,” Middleton told me, “he was jumping five feet in the air.”
In 2000, he sent a demo video to Irwin Arginsky, the president of SBI Enterprises, manufacturers of the original pogo stick, in upstate New York. SBI officials had belittled earlier efforts to soup up the pogo. “There’s not a heck of a lot you can change on the pogo stick,” Bruce Turk, then SBI’s general manager, told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, in 1990. “Once you try, you’re in trouble.”
But a decade later, when they sat down and watched Middleton’s video, “our jaws dropped,” Arginsky told me.
SBI Enterprises spent four years and nearly $3 million turning the Flybar into a marketable sporting device. Compared with the Vurtego or BowGo, the Flybar is a complex design involving 12 solid rubber tubes—or “thrusters”—that latch onto mounts surrounding the piston. Individual tubes, which generate 100 pounds of force each, can be slipped off to adjust for rider weight or fear of heights.
Arginsky signed up Andy Macdonald, an eight-time World Cup Skateboarding champion, to field-test and promote Middleton’s stick. Macdonald loved its trampoline-like feel, but broke dozens of prototypes as Flybar’s “crash-test dummy” before he and Middleton arrived at a safe design. The collaboration between skateboarding pro and introverted scientist appears to have had its share of droll moments. “Bruce was the numbers guy—very much the physicist,” Macdonald told me. “He’d be talking in these scientific terms about storage and energy and thrust and per-pound blah, blah, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s rad, dude.’”
The pogo stick had its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, after Hansburg, its inventor, helped teach Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies to bounce. The Ziegfeld girls did dance routines on the sticks and staged what was perhaps the world’s first (and last) pogo-mounted marriage.
Along with the red wagon and hula hoop, the stick became iconic of a kind of idyllic American childhood. Still, demand has been mostly earthbound. “You’re not talking about a hot toy,” Arginsky, who bought the company from Hansburg in 1967, told me. “You’re talking about a market that maybe—maybe—we topped out one year at 475,000 units.” And that’s conventional pogos. SBI recently changed its name to Flybar Inc., but the extreme stick represents a “very small fraction” of overall sales.