The pogo stick may never upend the wheel as a means of locomotion. But as inventions go, they share something: Once built, there wasn’t a whole lot anyone could seem to do to improve the basic design. In the more than eight decades since a Russian immigrant named George B. Hansburg introduced the pogo stick to America, the device had scarcely changed: a homely stilt with foot pegs and a steel coil spring that bopped riders a few inches off the ground. And bopped. And bopped. And bopped. Some kids fell off so many times they gave up, tossing the pogo next to the dinged hula hoops and unicycle deep in the garage. Others just outgrew it, gaining enough weight as teenagers to snap the stick or snuff the spring.
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But not long ago, three inventors—toiling at home, unaware of one another’s existence—set out to reimagine the pogo. What was so sacred about that ungainly steel coil? they wondered. Why couldn’t you make a pogo stick brawny enough for a 250-pound adult? And why not vault riders a few feet, instead of measly inches? If athletes were pulling “big air” on skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes, why couldn’t the pogo stick be just as, well, gnarly?
When I reached one of the inventors, Bruce Middleton—who studied physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and describes himself as an “outcast scientist”—he told me that the problem had been a “conceptual basin.”
“Normal people, someone tells them a pogo stick is a thing with steel springs, they go, ‘That’s right,’” Middleton said. “If that’s your basin, you’ll never come up with a very good pogo. An inventor is someone who recognizes the existence of a conceptual basin and sees that there’s a world outside the basin.”
That world turned out to be a perilous place. In their quest for Pogo 2.0, the inventors endured bouts of unconsciousness, defective Chinese imports, trips to the bank for second mortgages and an exploding prototype that sent one test pilot to the hospital for reconstructive surgery.
“It’s a really challenging thing if you think about the forces involved,” Middleton told me. He is talking, here, about forces that could fling a grown-up six feet in the air. “It’s a matter of life and death that it doesn’t break. So you’re taking on something that has to be built in a very serious way, and it has to come in on a kind of toy budget. And it has to be rugged enough that when people bail, and they’re four to five feet in air...it has to be rugged enough to take that. When you actually start thinking about what your design parameters are, it turns out it’s a horrific design challenge.”
In time, Middleton, along with two other inventors—a robotics engineer at Carnegie Mellon University and a retired California firefighter—would see their ideas take wing. The Guinness Book of World Records would establish a new category—highest jump on a pogo stick—which a 17-year-old Canadian, Dan Mahoney, would set in 2010 by leaping, pogo and all, over a bar set at 9 feet 6 inches. Pogopalooza, an annual competition that started in 2004 with six guys in a church parking lot in Nebraska, graduated last year to a sports arena at the Orange County (California) fair. It drew thousands of fans and 50 of the world’s best practitioners of “extreme pogo.”
After one inventor’s son pogoed over a New York City taxicab on the “Late Show with David Letterman,” the host, looking uncharacteristically sincere, turned to the camera and said, “That’s the most exciting thing I’ve seen in all my life—honest to God.”
But I hop ahead. Before Guinness and Letterman and the television lights, there were just three ordinary men, on lonely journeys, convinced that somewhere out there was a better pogo.
Ben Brown’s house is on a winding street in the Pittsburgh suburbs. When I showed up, the 67-year-old robotics engineer answered the door in an ornately lettered sweatshirt that said, “I make stuff.”