When I made an electronic search of files at the U.S. Patent Office, I found ideas for a gas-powered internal combustion pogo (1950) and a pogo with helicopter blades “for producing a gliding descent between jumps” (1969). In 1967, a Stanford University engineer unveiled designs for a “lunar leaper,” a 1,200-pound vehicle with a pneumatic shaft that could bounce astronauts, in 50-foot arcs, across the low-gravity surface of the moon. In 1990, a San Jose man patented a pogo that crushes beer cans.
None of these adaptations took; some never got built, others never found a market. But why not? And why have others taken off now? The more I talked to Brown, Spencer and Middleton, the more convinced I became of the importance of culture—and timing. The late 1990s saw the rise of “extreme sports” and a generation of teenage mavericks doing stomach-churning tricks on skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes. The advent of ESPN’s annual X Games gave currency to phrases like “big air,” “vert” and “gnarly.” Soon the label “extreme” was being attached to every manner of boundary-testing contest, from eating to couponing.
But neither Brown nor Middleton was aware of the extreme sports scene when he began; Spencer, though familiar with skis and surfboards, never saw his pogo as any sort of rival. The trio’s motivation—simply to shake up a tired design—was probably not unlike those of earlier inventors whose ideas never got off the ground.
What none of the men knew then was that teenagers weaned on the X Games were rummaging through their garages for any old gizmo to take higher, farther or faster. The pogo appealed to kids who couldn’t—or didn’t want to—compete with the skateboarding hordes or who saw in its goofiness a kind of geeky cool. For several years before the supercharged pogos came to market, teenagers were refining low-altitude tricks like grinds and stalls on conventional sticks and swapping ideas and videos on websites like the Pogo Spot and Xpogo.
This time, when inventors came along with a new and better design, there was a market waiting—and a culture that could make sense of it as the latest extreme pastime.
I caught up not long ago with a few of the country’s best extreme pogoers. A Pittsburgh TV station had hired three members of a troupe known as the Pogo Dudes to perform in a parade.
Fred Grzybowski, a compactly built athlete who is the group’s éminence gris at 22, had driven to town with Tone Staubs and Zac Tucker, all from Ohio. Grzybowski ekes out a living with public performances, corporate functions and commercials. Staubs, 19, has kept his day job at a gas station. Tucker, 16, is a high-school junior.
The night before the parade, I watched a rehearsal in a faintly lit parking lot near Carnegie Mellon. The first thing I noticed was a set of cylinders that looked more like shoulder-mounted rocket launchers than any pogo I remembered from childhood.
Grzybowski, in hoodie and jeans, docked his iPhone into a portable speaker and cranked up the song “Houdini,” by Los Angeles indie rockers Foster the People. The Pogo Dudes were soon leaping through a routine of gravity-snubbing stunts with names like “air walk,” “switch cheese” and “under-the-leg bar spin.” (Fred rides a Flybar; Tone and Zac, Vurtegos.)
At a VIP brunch at a local Marriott after the parade, Grzybowski told me that he’d gotten his first pogo for Christmas when he was 8. It was a plastic stick with an anemic steel spring. But he persevered, learning to ride with no hands or while eating a Popsicle.