How the Pogo Stick Leapt From Classic Toy to Extreme Sport

Three lone inventors took the gadget that had changed little since it was invented more than 80 years ago and transformed it into a gnarly, big air machine

The pogo stick remained essentially unchanged for 80 years. Recently, three inventors have created powerful new gravity-defying machines that can leap over (small) buildings in a single bound. (Illustration by Martin Ansin)
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The economy was still limping after 9/11, and the proposed $300 price tag and dicey liability issues made investors wary. For two years, his pogo sticks gathered dust on a rack in the garage.

Then, in September 2004, SBI Enterprises, the makers of the original pogo stick, released the Flybar, a high-powered pogo designed by Bruce Middleton. The Spencers despaired they’d missed the boat, but eventually glimpsed opportunity. The publicity surrounding the Flybar was helping establish a market for extreme pogo sticks.

Bruce Spencer took out a $180,000 home equity loan, a friend chipped in another $180,000, and Spencer undertook a series of refinements to prepare the Vurtego for its commercial debut.

In December 2005, a month before the launch, they suffered an almost catastrophic setback. Brian Spencer, a lithe former college linebacker who had become Vurtego’s chief test pilot, was pogoing in his driveway on a prototype made of wound fiberglass filament, a strong, ultralight material used to reinforce the exterior of high-pressure scuba tanks. He had bounced to heights of about five feet when the pressurized tube snapped. Its top half rocketed into his chin, pushing his four front teeth into his nose, shattering his jaw and almost completely severing his bottom lip.

“Blood everywhere,” Brian Spencer told me when I visited the family in California. “It was the first time I heard my dad swear.”

Brian underwent plastic surgery to reattach his lip, repair his nose and implant five false teeth. He still lacks feeling in his lower lip.

“At that point, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m pulling the plug,’” Bruce Spencer recalled.

But Brian was undeterred. “I didn’t donate my face so we could fail,” he told his father. (An analysis found the tube defective; Brian won a settlement from its maker.)

Unwilling to risk another failure, Bruce Spencer turned to heavier but tougher materials, first a space-age thermoplastic and, finally, aerospace aluminum. Riders could pressurize the tube with an ordinary bike pump. The Spencers sold their first Vurtego in January 2006. Brian soon leapt over that taxicab on Letterman’s show. In August 2010, at Pogopalooza 7, in Salt Lake City, Mahoney, the Canadian, set a new pogo high-jump record—on a Vurtego. The Spencers told me they sell around 800 a year, all through their website.

I met with Bruce and Brian Spencer in a narrow, sky-lit work space in a nondescript commerce park in Mission Viejo, where they personally assemble their pogo sticks. Saddleback Mountain rose in the haze beyond the parking lot.


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