Three lone inventors take it the gadget that had actually changed tiny since it was invented more than 80 years back and transformed it right into a gnarly, big air machine


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The pogo stick remained basically unchanged for 80 years. Recently, 3 inventors have produced powerful new gravity-defying equipments that deserve to leap end (small) structures in a solitary bound. Illustration by boy name Ansin

The pogo stick may never upend the wheel together a method of locomotion. However as creations go, they share something: once built, over there wasn’t a entirety lot anyone might seem to perform to improve the simple design. In the more than eight decades because a Russian immigrant called George B. Hansburg presented the pogo stick come America, the device had scarcely changed: a homely stilt through foot pegs and also a stole coil spring that bopped riders a couple of inches turn off the ground. And bopped. And also bopped. And bopped. Some children fell off so numerous times they offered up, tossing the pogo alongside the dinged hula hoops and also unicycle deep in the garage. Others simply outgrew it, gaining enough weight as teens to snap the pole or snuff the spring.

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But not lengthy ago, 3 inventors—toiling at home, unaware of one another’s existence—set out to reimagine the pogo. What was so sacred around that ungainly stole coil? they wondered. Why can not you make a pogo pole brawny sufficient for a 250-pound adult? and why not vault riders a couple of feet, rather of measly inches? If athletes were pulling “big air” top top skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes, why can not the pogo pole be just as, well, gnarly?

When i reached among the inventors, Bruce Middleton—who studied physics in ~ the Massachusetts academy of modern technology and defines himself together an “outcast scientist”—he told me the the difficulty had to be a “conceptual basin.”

“Normal people, someone speak them a pogo rod is a point with steel springs, lock go, ‘That’s right,’” Middleton said. “If that’s her basin, you’ll never come up v a very good pogo. An inventor is someone who recognizes the presence of a theoretical basin and also sees the there’s a human being outside the basin.”

That civilization turned the end to it is in a perilous place. In their quest for Pogo 2.0, the inventors endured bouts the unconsciousness, defective Chinese imports, trips come the bank for second mortgages and an exploding prototype that sent one test pilot come the hospital because that reconstructive surgery.

“It’s a really complicated thing if girlfriend think about the pressures involved,” Middleton called me. That is talking, here, about forces that might fling a grown-up 6 feet in the air. “It’s a matter of life and death that it no break. Therefore you’re taking on something that needs to be developed in a really serious way, and also it has to come in top top a sort of toy budget. And it needs to be rugged sufficient that when civilization bail, and they’re four to 5 feet in air...it has to be rugged sufficient to take that. Once you actually begin thinking around what your design parameters are, it transforms out that a horrific design challenge.”

In time, Middleton, in addition to two other inventors—a robotics engineer at Carnegie Mellon University and a retirement California firefighter—would view their principles take wing. The Guinness book of civilization Records would develop a new category—highest jump on a pogo stick—which a 17-year-old Canadian, Dan Mahoney, would set in 2010 through leaping, pogo and also all, over a bar set at 9 feet 6 inches. Pogopalooza, an annual competition that started in 2004 v six men in a church parking lot of in Nebraska, i graduated last year to a sporting activities arena in ~ the Orange ar (California) fair. It drew thousands the fans and also 50 the the world’s best practitioners the “extreme pogo.”

After one inventor’s child pogoed end a brand-new York City taxicab on the “Late display with David Letterman,” the host, spring uncharacteristically sincere, turned come the camera and also said, “That’s the most amazing thing I’ve seen in every my life—honest to God.”

But i hop ahead. Prior to Guinness and Letterman and the tv lights, over there were simply three plain men, top top lonely journeys, persuaded that somewhere out there was a far better pogo.

Ben Brown’s house is top top a winding street in the Pittsburgh suburbs. When I showed up, the 67-year-old robotics engineer answered the door in one ornately lettered sweatshirt the said, “I make stuff.”

A slight guy with a stubbly gray beard and also elfin features, Brown led me under a collection of creaky stairs come his basement workshop. A smorgasbord the screws, wires and also electronic capacitors to fill rows that washed-out peanut butter jars that Brown had actually somehow affixed to the ceiling. In the civilization of robotics, one of his partner told me, Brown has a reputation together a “mechanical designer extraordinaire.”

“This is the graveyard,” Brown said, nodding in ~ piles of wooden dowels, fiberglass strips and slotted aluminum shafts—detritus native the decade he’s spent refining his pogo stick, the BowGo. Razor, the company that rode the toy scooter to wide range in the beforehand 2000s, licensed Brown’s an innovation in 2010 and also sells a children’s variation of his stick, which they call the BoGo.

Brown arisen the BowGo come prove a basic idea: that with the ideal design and materials, a lightweight spring can conserve an extremely high re-superstructure of the power put right into it, through minimal losses come friction.

“A pogo looks to us choose a toy,” said Matt Mason, the manager of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, where Brown has operated for 3 decades. “To Ben, it’s an idea taken to its many radical extreme.”

Brown, a onetime mechanical engineer for Pittsburgh’s steel mills, join Carnegie Mellon in the beforehand 1980s and worked top top Defense Department-funded research right into “legged locomotion”—robots the walk, run and hop. The military was interested in vehicles that balanced on legs and could roam mountainsides, swamps and also other terrain also rugged because that trucks or tanks.

Brown and his colleagues developed a secure of to dance one-legged robots that could leap over objects and move nimbly at almost five miles every hour without shedding their balance. But the hoppers—picture a 38-pound bird cage on a swiveling stilt—were power hogs. Powered by hydraulics and compressed air, they had to it is in tethered to pumps, electric outlets and also computers. Brown to be left wondering: can you build a foot light and also efficient enough to bounce without outside power?

“Kangaroos were constantly inspiring,” Brown called me, “because the kangaroo offers an Achilles tendon that stores a large amount of power and permits it to hop efficiently.”

In the so late 1990s he and also a graduate student, Garth Zeglin, bent a six-inch size of piano wire and joined the ends with a piece of wire that hosted the cable taut, choose a bow. They referred to as it a “bow leg,” and also tested the on an inclined air-hockey table. As soon as dropped, the foot flexed and also recoiled, bouncing back to in between 80 and also 90 percent that its original height, a feat of power conservation.

Brown want to put his idea come a larger test. One path would be to build a battery-powered, human-size dance robot through an onboard computer, stabilizing gyroscope and also giant bow leg. He opted instead for a pogo stick.

“It was really the easiest method to develop a robot without every the robot technology,” Brown said. The just power source, thrust actuator, leg position controller and altitude sensor you necessary was a flesh-and-blood rider.

In 2000, Brown and also another Carnegie Mellon engineer, Illah Nourbakhsh, constructed their an initial BowGo prototype. Instead of piano wire, lock bolted a strip of structural-grade fiberglass to the outside of the pogo’s aluminum frame. They fastened the peak of the fiberglass strip close to the handlebars and the bottom come the plunger. When a driver lands and also the plunger shuttles v the frame, the strip flexes and then abruptly straightens, reversing the plunger and also launching the rider skyward through as much as 1,200 pounds the force. Oz for ounce, castle discovered, this fiberglass “leaf spring” stored as much as five times the elastic energy as a typical steel coil.

After a couple of year of field experimentation in his backyard and also on campus greens, Brown pogoed over a bar set at 38 inches. “A pair of times, the foot slipped out and also I to be unconscious because that a bit,” Brown recalled. “I remember some man standing end me and also saying, ‘Do you recognize your name?’”

It ended up being clear the Brown, a grand of four, required a younger check pilot. He transport a prototype come Curt Markwardt, a southern California video clip game tester who learned his an initial tricks ~ above a $5 pogo stick that a friend had actually bought together a hoax at a toy store’s going-out-of-business sale.

Within month Markwardt had somersaulted ~ above the BowGo end his car and also cleared a bar set at 8 feet 7 inches, a record. As soon as he’d very first told friends about his enthusiasm for pogo, “people would sort of chuckle,” Markwardt told me. “They think of small kids bopping up and also down and not act anything.” however when “they watch you jump 6 feet in the air and also you execute a flip, divine cow...it turns into instant awesome.”

Brown is passionate for Razor to release an adult version of his stick, yet so far, only the children’s model is for sale. The bow leg, meanwhile, is still kicking. In 2008, Brown and also a team the colleagues winner a provide from the national Science structure to construct the modern technology into a lightweight “parkour bot” the climbs through leaping in between parallel walls.

When Bruce Spencer retired after 28 years as a firefighter in Huntington Beach, California, he imagine a simpler life. A husky guy with a large brow and also ruggedly handsome features, he dreamy of flying his two-passenger Cessna to Idaho and also Colorado and scouting the wilderness because that a patch of planet to develop a cabin and live out his years through his wife, Patti, in quiet.

A few months after ~ leaving the department, though, Spencer organized a family members party. His nephew mock Spencer had developed a prototype adult-size pogo stick, stuffing a 33-inch stole spring into an aluminum tube. However the weight of every that steel made the rod unwieldy. Josh to be venting about it at the party, and also Bruce Spencer’s kid Brian checked out his dad because that advice.

“Brian comes in and says, ‘Hey Dad, if you ever before made a huge pogo stick for adults, exactly how would you perform it?’” Bruce Spencer recalled.

Before authorized the fire department, Spencer had actually earned a degree in aerospace engineering and worked at Northrop on the design team because that a lightweight fighter jet the would come to be the F-18. His son’s inquiry lit up a dormant component of his brain.

Spencer penciled a chart in the spare of a newspaper. “Make an waiting spring,” he told his son, “because it would be very light.” through that, he thought about himself rid the the matter. “Just fun and also games,” the told me, v the ton of a man recalling a assignment of youthful naiveté.

A couple of months later, Brian, a charismatic marketing executive, announced that he’d found an investor. The handed his father a inspect for $10,000.

Roused by the engineering challenge, Bruce Spencer dove right into the project with such zeal the his mam often discovered him awake at night trying to unravel some pogo-related physics problem.

His very first prototype to be a Rube Goldberg mishmash that PVC irrigation pipe from residence Depot, truck tire valves, and pistons the machined in his garage. He uncovered a polyurethane shock absorber at one off-road supply store and bolted it come the foot the the pogo to cushion landings. He pressurized the watering pipe to around 50 pounds per square inch with an air compressor.

When i asked Spencer because that an everyday example of an waiting spring, the stood increase from his workdesk chair and also plopped back down. The chair dipped an inch or therefore under his weight, then rebounded, many thanks to pressurized wait in its assistance column. “It’s core technology,” that told me. “And no one had actually really made it work-related in a pogo stick.”

Spencer’s first prototypes worked, yet the plunger recoiled v such vehemence that he felt together if he to be riding a jackhammer. To market his pole commercially, he’d require a smoother ride.

He’d learned Boyle’s legislation in college and also recalled that volume and also pressure were inversely proportional: Compress waiting to fifty percent its initial volume and also the push doubles; compress volume by another half and push doubles again.

If friend tried come squeeze air into anything smaller sized than a 4 minutes 1 of its initial volume, Spencer discovered, you obtained the jackhammer effect. The only method to keep the “compression ratio” short while still developing enough thrust come lift an adult driver was to usage the entire length that the pogo cylinder together an wait spring. Once he demonstrated this insight, inspectors at the U.S. Patent Office certified the novelty of his invention.

He spent the following year exploring with tube materials, pressure seals and also lubricants. To make certain the pogo cylinder can withstand substantial pressures, that drove come a local park in the beforehand mornings, to reduce a tube inside a 55-gallon steel drum, and slid the entirety rig right into a batting cage. He placed in earplugs, take it cover behind a concrete water fountain and also cranked up the press in the tube v a nitrogen tank until the tube exploded.

“Then I’d pick up the pieces, throw every little thing in the trunk and also drive away prior to the cops came,” he told me, half jokingly. He discovered that the cylinder might withstand pressures of nearly 800 pounds per square inch, an ext than 3 times what one adult driver was apt to produce.

The Spencers took 16 prototypes of their stick—the Vurtego, they dubbed it—to the Ice village at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. They were a hit with tourists, visiting athletes and also TV cameras. “When I come home, I assumed I’d have human being champing at the little bit to invest in the company,” Bruce said. “It didn’t happen.”

The economy was quiet limping ~ 9/11, and the propose $300 price tag and also dicey liability problems made investor wary. For two years, his pogo sticks gathered dust ~ above a rack in the garage.

Then, in September 2004, SBI Enterprises, the devices of the initial pogo stick, exit the Flybar, a high-powered pogo designed by Bruce Middleton. The Spencers despaired they’d missed the boat, however eventually glimpsed opportunity. The publicity surrounding the Flybar was helping create a sector for too much pogo sticks.

Bruce Spencer took the end a $180,000 residence equity loan, a friend chipped in one more $180,000, and Spencer carried out a collection of refinements come prepare the Vurtego for its advertisement debut.

In December 2005, a month prior to the launch, they experienced an almost catastrophic setback. Brian Spencer, a lithe former college linebacker who had end up being Vurtego’s chief test pilot, to be pogoing in his driveway on a prototype do of wound fiberglass filament, a strong, ultralight product used to reinforce the exterior that high-pressure scuba tanks. He had actually bounced come heights of about five feet once the pressurized tube snapped. The top half rocketed right into his chin, pushing his four front teeth right into his nose, shattering his jaw and also almost completely severing his bottom lip.

“Blood everywhere,” Brian Spencer told me once I saw the family members in California. “It to be the very first time i heard mine dad swear.”

Brian underwent plastic surgical treatment to reattach his lip, repair his nose and implant 5 false teeth. He still lacks feeling in his lower lip.

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

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

Unwilling come risk an additional failure, Bruce Spencer turned to heavier yet tougher materials, very first a space-age thermoplastic and, finally, aerospace aluminum. Riders can pressurize the tube with an ordinary bike pump. The Spencers sold their first Vurtego in January 2006. Brian quickly leapt over the taxicab top top Letterman’s show. In respectable 2010, in ~ Pogopalooza 7, in Salt Lake City, Mahoney, the Canadian, set a brand-new pogo high-jump record—on a Vurtego. The Spencers told me they sell about 800 a year, all with their website.

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

It to be a Wednesday afternoon, a week and also a half before Christmas, and also father and son to be scurrying to stay atop a sirloin of vacation business, consisting of a first-ever order from Egypt, the 42nd nation in i beg your pardon Vurtego has uncovered customers.

I had actually a difficult time tracking down Bruce Middleton, that would eventually tell me his theory of “conceptual basins.” Old e-mails and phone numbers no work, and his surname was usual enough to do identifying the right man tricky. Ns eventually discovered him on Facebook, i m sorry his daughter had actually nudged him come join.

His life had seen some ups and downs because his Flybar pogo stick pertained to market. As soon as we speak by phone, the told me the he had break-up with SBI Enterprises. He was currently living in a single-room-occupancy hotel on skid heat in Vancouver, brothers Columbia. (Middleton claimed the company owed the money; SBI’s chairman told me the parting was amicable.)

“I believed my 15 minute of pogo call were all finished,” Middleton replied, dryly, come my first Facebook message.

I claimed I to be interested less in his fame, such as it was, 보다 in the workings of one inventor’s mind. Exactly how does a grown male decide the a quiver of gigantic rubber bands is the vital to pogo’s progress?

Middleton, 55, told me that the Flybar was his answer come a concern that involved him when he was 16. His girlfriend had lived 15 miles away, on the other side the Vancouver’s Lions gate Bridge. During bike rides to her house, after reaching high speeds, the hated having to brake at lights and also squander all the kinetic energy.

Might there be some method to save the energy lost to braking? could you transform it come potential energy and also then release it come propel you back to your original speed? (A kind of such “regenerative braking” is now standard in hybrid vehicles prefer the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.)

For decades, the question remained one of the many intellectual riddles caroming about his brain. Middleton gone into MIT at period 16, with desires of becoming a theoretical physicist. He quickly suffered what the termed a “moral crisis” end the detachment of scientific research from real-world difficulties like global poverty, and also dropped out .

He traveled to Venezuela to tend to disabled youngsters at one of mother Teresa’s outposts. Earlier in Canada, he functioned a series of menial jobs—parks laborer, millworker—and eventually ended up being a stay-at-home dad. In the late 1990s, he started bicycling with his 2 young daughters to their school and found himself recently curious about regenerative braking.

He thought about affixing some kind of steel spring to his bike. However he concluded the a solid enough steel coil would quickly weigh as lot as one adult rider. Rubber was lighter than steel and, pound for pound, might store as lot as 20 time the energy. Still, that need much more rubber than can be elegantly combined into a bicycle frame.

Then it involved him: a pogo stick. “I realized that, Hey, yeah, a lb of rubber could store enough power to bounce a person 5 to 6 feet in the air.”

He built a structure with wooden planks indigenous an old Ikea couch. Climate he purchase a roll of industrial-grade surgical tubing from a clinical supply store. He fashioned a feather by looping the tube from steel anchors at the frame’s bottom to hooks he’d drilled right into the piston. As soon as a rider jumped down, the piston would stretch the rubber tube to four times their resting length.

After a few rounds of improvements, that asked his daughter’s gymnastics coach to provide his pogo a bounce. “Within minutes,” Middleton said me, “he to be jumping five feet in the air.”

In 2000, he sent out a demo video to Irwin Arginsky, the president of SBI Enterprises, manufacturers that the initial pogo stick, in upstate brand-new York. SBI officials had actually belittled previously efforts come soup increase the pogo. “There’s no a hell of a lot girlfriend can change on the pogo stick,” Bruce Turk, climate SBI’s basic manager, said the Times Herald-Record that Middletown, brand-new York, in 1990. “Once girlfriend try, you’re in trouble.”

But a decade later, as soon as they sat down and also watched Middleton’s video, “our jaws dropped,” Arginsky said me.

SBI enterprises spent four years and almost $3 million transforming the Flybar into a marketable sporting device. Contrasted with the Vurtego or BowGo, the Flybar is a complex design involving 12 solid rubber tubes—or “thrusters”—that latch ~ above mounts surrounding the piston. Individual tubes, which create 100 pounds of pressure each, have the right to be slipped turn off to adjust for driver weight or are afraid of heights.

Arginsky signed up Andy Macdonald, one eight-time people Cup slip champion, come field-test and promote Middleton’s stick. Macdonald loved its trampoline-like feel, but damaged dozens the prototypes as Flybar’s “crash-test dummy” before he and Middleton arrived on a safe design. The collaboration between skateboarding pro and introverted scientist shows up to have had actually its re-superstructure of droll moments. “Bruce was the number guy—very lot the physicist,” Macdonald told me. “He’d be talk in these clinical terms around storage and energy and thrust and per-pound blah, blah, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s rad, dude.’”

Read around the feud in between pogo scientists over "Theory" vs. "The actual World" »

The pogo stick had actually its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, ~ Hansburg, the inventor, helped teach Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies come bounce. The Ziegfeld girl did dance routines on the sticks and also staged what was perhaps the world’s first (and last) pogo-mounted marriage.

Along with the red wagon and also hula hoop, the stick ended up being iconic of a kind of idyllic American childhood. Still, need has been largely earthbound. “You’re no talking around a hot toy,” Arginsky, that bought the agency from Hansburg in 1967, called me. “You’re talking about a market that maybe—maybe—we topped out one year at 475,000 units.” and also that’s traditional pogos. SBI recently readjusted its name to Flybar Inc., yet the excessive stick to represent a “very little fraction” of in its entirety sales.

When ns made an electronic search of papers at the U.S. Patent Office, ns found ideas for a gas-powered internal burning pogo (1950) and a pogo through helicopter knives “for developing a gliding descent between jumps” (1969). In 1967, a Stanford university engineer unveiled designs because that a “lunar leaper,” a 1,200-pound vehicle with a pneumatic tower that could bounce astronauts, in 50-foot arcs, across the low-gravity surface ar of the moon. In 1990, a san Jose man patented a pogo the crushes beer cans.

None of this adaptations took; part never got built, rather never uncovered a market. Yet why not? and also why have others taken off now? The much more I speak to Brown, Spencer and also Middleton, the much more convinced I came to be of the prestige of culture—and timing. The so late 1990s witnessed the rise of “extreme sports” and also a generation that teenage mavericks act stomach-churning tip on skateboards, snowboards and also BMX bikes. The advent of ESPN’s yearly X games gave currency to phrases favor “big air,” “vert” and also “gnarly.” soon the brand “extreme” was being attached to every manner of boundary-testing contest, from eating to couponing.

But neither Brown no one Middleton was conscious of the extreme sports scene when he began; Spencer, though acquainted with skis and also surfboards, never ever saw his pogo as any type of sort of rival. The trio’s motivation—simply to shake increase a exhausted design—was most likely not uneven those of earlier inventors whose principles never acquired off the ground.

What nobody of the males knew then was that adolescents weaned on the X games were rummaging with their garages for any type of old gizmo to take it higher, furthermore or faster. The pogo appealed to youngsters who couldn’t—or didn’t desire to—compete with the underpants hordes or who saw in its goofiness a sort of geeky cool. For numerous years prior to the supercharged pogos concerned market, teenagers were refining low-altitude tricks favor grinds and stalls on traditional sticks and also swapping ideas and videos on websites prefer the Pogo Spot and Xpogo.

This time, as soon as inventors came in addition to a new and far better design, there to be a industry waiting—and a culture that can make feeling of it as the latest extreme pastime.

I caught up not long ago with a few of the country’s ideal extreme pogoers. A Pittsburgh TV station had actually hired three members of a troupe well-known as the Pogo Dudes to do in a parade.

Fred Grzybowski, a compactly developed athlete who is the group’s éminence gris in ~ 22, had driven to town v Tone Staubs and also Zac Tucker, every from Ohio. Grzybowski ekes the end a living with public performances, that company functions and commercials. Staubs, 19, has actually kept his day project at a gas station. Tucker, 16, is a high-school junior.

The night prior to the parade, i watched a rehearsal in a faintly lit parking lot near Carnegie Mellon. The very first thing i noticed was a set of cylinders the looked much more like shoulder-mounted rocket launchers than any type of pogo ns remembered from childhood.

Grzybowski, in hoodie and also jeans, docked his iPhone into a portable speaker and cranked increase the track “Houdini,” by Los Angeles indie rockers Foster the People. The Pogo Dudes were shortly leaping v a regimen of gravity-snubbing stunts v names favor “air walk,” “switch cheese” and also “under-the-leg bar spin.” (Fred rides a Flybar; Tone and Zac, Vurtegos.)

At a VIP brunch at a regional Marriott after ~ the parade, Grzybowski said me that he’d acquired his first pogo for Christmas as soon as he was 8. It to be a plastic stick through an anemic stole spring. However he persevered, learning to ride v no hand or while eat a Popsicle.

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Transposing skateboard tricks come a pogo made that feel as if he were “creating other new,” the told me. Yet it wasn’t until he saw previews that the Flybar and Vurtego ~ above the Xpogo website the he grasped how far his eccentric hobby could take him.

“I don’t think we would certainly be where we space without the technology,” Grzybowski, pertained to for a time as the best pogoer in the world, told me. “The an innovation pushed us forward and made united state see brand-new tricks were possible.” In an action sports society that prized “big air,” that said, “the larger sticks added legitimacy.”

They were likewise just a lot of fun. “It’s a weightless feeling,” Staubs said me, together he massaged a sore knee after ~ the parade. “It place this emotion inside her head the you deserve to go high, you can do anything, you invincible.”