Actor Ashton Kutcher recently appeared on Jimmy Kimmel Live and told the mother of all stories about the invention of the yoyo. We’ve all heard the “oh, it was a weapon” myth repeated over and over, but this one is a brand new piece of mythology. (That video was taken down, presumably because a fact-checker at Jimmy Kimmel was like “dear god no” but here’s him repeating the same story for Kerry Washington)
The hilarity starts in at 2:55, where Ashton discusses his childhood neighbor, a supposed toy inventor named Harry Billings. According to Harry, he is the inventor of the yoyo. Not “a” yoyo, but “the” yoyo. There’s some shenanigan about the Duncan Tinker Toy Company (which has never existed, ever) sending out Tinker Toy kits out to kids and asking them to invent a new toy. Harry claims he created the first yoyo, then apparently patented it himself (as a child?), and then sold the patent for $100. It’s a great story, told well. It’s also 100% false.
I know that no one tunes in to Jimmy Kimmel for accurate historical data, and I know that it’s pretty unreasonable to expect Ashton Kutcher to be an expert on toy history. But since he’s currently part of a venture capital firm that throws a fair bit of money around to tech startups, it would be cool if he knew what he was talking about before he spun fictional tales of inventor’s woes on national television.
So, since we’re kind of adamant about this stuff, here are a couple of actual facts about the origins of the yoyo:
1. The oldest recorded yoyo carbon dates back to 450 BC, in Greece. They were made from terracotta, and it’s original use was as a children’s toy. A yoyo from this time period is currently on display in the Smithsonian, and another in the National Museum of Athens in Greece. Here’s a picture of the one in Greece:
2. The yoyo traveled all over the world, but came to the United States in the 1920s via a Filipino immigrant named Pedro Flores. Flores started up the Flores YoYo Company in Santa Barbara, California, and that’s how entrepreneur (inventor of the parking meter and founder of Good Humor ice cream) Donald F. Duncan came to learn about the yoyo. Duncan purchased the Flores YoYo Company for an amount reputed to be close to $250,000. In modern dollars that’s over $4 million bucks.
So while the idea of some little-known toy inventor accidentally giving away a fortune to some unscrupulous business man is romantic, and everyone loves a villain, there is absolutely nothing true about this story. The yoyo was invented a long, long time ago and everyone responsible for bringing it to the American public was paid quite handsomely.
Sorry, Ashton. You got punk’d.