Out of this World: A Brief History of the Yo-Yo

I remember my first yo-yo: a blue Duncan Imperial. I was 7 years old and had saved up enough of my allowance to buy it. The drive to the store felt like an eternity. When I finally opened the package, the bright, shiny yo-yo smelled of plastic and felt as smooth as ice—it was perfect. Back at home, I spent hours in the driveway playing with my new toy. Over the next few weeks, I continued to practice and realized that if I flicked my wrist a certain way, the yo-yo would go faster or slower depending upon the amount of energy I used. I never quite mastered the yo-yo, but I was good at a few tricks, such as Rock the Cradle, Walk the Dog, Around the World, and The Sleeper.

Photograph of Greek vase with image of a boy playing with yo-yo, circa 440 BC. Photo courtesy of Wikimedia Commons user Bibi Saint-Pol through Creative Commons License Attribution.There is still much debate regarding the origins of the yo-yo. However, the general consensus is that a toy similar to a yo-yo and known as a diabolo originated in China around 1000 B.C. Further evidence of early yo-yo history comes from Ancient Greece. Archeological digs have unearthed terra cotta disks reminiscent to yo-yos, as well as Greek vases depicting young boys playing with similar objects. By the 1700s, yo-yos had made their way to France where the toy received several names, including incroyable, l’émigrette, the quiz, and the jou-jou. In the 1800s, the English term for a yo-yo was a bandalore, and English royalty made it their toy of choice. Here in the United States, two Ohio inventors filed an 1866 U.S. patent for a product they referred to as a “bandelore” and a “whirligig,” which was made of metal.

Butterfly yo-yo, Duncan Toy Co., gift of Josie Wattie and family in memory of Maurice Wattie. The Strong, Rochester, New York.Fast forward to the 1920s in California, where Pedro Flores, a young Filipino man, sold hand-carved yo-yos and staged demonstrations to show how the toys worked. Flores trademarked the name “yo-yo,” which means “come come” in Tagalog. In 1928, Flores’ yo-yo business caught the attention of American entrepreneur Donald F. Duncan, who purchased both the company and the trademarked name “yo-yo.” Duncan mimicked a part of Flores’ business model and successfully marketed yo-yos by employing young Filipino men to demonstrate yo-yos in action at various venues, while also sponsoring yo-yo contests to garner more interest in the product. With skillful promotion, Duncan secured free advertising for his numerous contests in local newspapers. Duncan’s modern plastic yo-yo eventually became a household name, and its longevity and iconic status earned the Duncan Yo-Yo a coveted spot in The Strong’s National Toy Hall of Fame in 1999. Duncan yo-yos are still manufactured and sold today by Flambeau, Inc.

Fli-Back Sales Corporation, trade catalog, 1966, from The Stephen and Diane Olin Toy Catalog Collection. The Strong, Rochester, New York.Since the 1970s, yo-yo design has evolved from the basic “two half-spheres connected by an axle and a string” to upgraded versions that can include ball bearings and internal clutch mechanisms; these advanced features make it possible to perform longer and more complex tricks. Additionally, this small, portable toy has gone where very few humans have gone before—outer space! On April 12, 1985, the Space Shuttle Discovery carried 11 toys into orbit, and its crew members used the yo-yo for scientific experiments on the effects of microgravity. On July 31, 1992, the yo-yo again ventured out of this world on the Space Shuttle Atlantis for an educational video on slow-motion yo-yoing. The yo-yo continues to play a part in NASA’s “International Toys in Space” program that tests toys on the International Space Station.

A yo-yo may appear to be a simple toy, but assuredly it is not. Whether used for pure fun or competitive sport, the yo-yo is essentially science in action (physics to be exact). With the right amount of rotational rate, friction, and tugs of the string, a yo-yo pro can entertain and awe young and old alike. I only wish I’d practiced my yo-yo tricks a little more back when I was a kid.