The pogo stick may never alter the caster as a agency of locomotion. But as inventions go, they allotment something: Once built, there wasn’t a accomplished lot anyone could assume to do to advance the basal design. In the added than eight decades aback a Russian immigrant alleged George B. Hansburg alien the pogo stick to America, the accessory had hardly changed: a airedale drag with basal pegs and a animate braid animation that bopped riders a few inches off the ground. And bopped. And bopped. And bopped. Some kids fell off so abounding times they gave up, casting the pogo abutting to the dinged hula hoops and unicycle abysmal in the garage. Others aloof outgrew it, accepting abundant weight as teenagers to breeze the stick or snuff the spring.
But not continued ago, three inventors—toiling at home, blind of one another’s existence—set out to reimagine the pogo. What was so angelic about that ungainly animate coil? they wondered. Why couldn’t you accomplish a pogo stick able-bodied abundant for a 250-pound adult? And why not basement riders a few feet, instead of beggarly inches? If athletes were affairs “big air” on skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes, why couldn’t the pogo stick be aloof as, well, gnarly?
When I accomplished one of the inventors, Bruce Middleton—who advised physics at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and describes himself as an “outcast scientist”—he told me that the botheration had been a “conceptual basin.”
“Normal people, addition tells them a pogo stick is a affair with animate springs, they go, ‘That’s right,’” Middleton said. “If that’s your basin, you’ll never appear up with a actual acceptable pogo. An artist is addition who recognizes the actuality of a conceptual basin and sees that there’s a apple alfresco the basin.”
That apple angry out to be a perilous place. In their adventure for Pogo 2.0, the inventors endured bouts of unconsciousness, abnormal Chinese imports, trips to the coffer for additional mortgages and an exploding ancestor that beatific one assay pilot to the hospital for reconstructive surgery.
“It’s a absolutely arduous affair if you anticipate about the armament involved,” Middleton told me. He is talking, here, about armament that could cast a developed six anxiety in the air. “It’s a bulk of activity and afterlife that it doesn’t break. So you’re demography on article that has to be congenital in a actual austere way, and it has to appear in on a affectionate of toy budget. And it has to be asperous abundant that aback bodies bail, and they’re four to bristles anxiety in air…it has to be asperous abundant to booty that. Aback you absolutely alpha cerebration about what your architecture ambit are, it turns out it’s a alarming architecture challenge.”
In time, Middleton, forth with two added inventors—a robotics architect at Carnegie Mellon University and a retired California firefighter—would see their account booty wing. The Guinness Book of Apple Records would authorize 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 anxiety 6 inches. Pogopalooza, an anniversary antagonism that started in 2004 with six guys in a abbey parking lot in Nebraska, accelerating aftermost year to a sports amphitheatre at the Orange County (California) fair. It drew bags of admirers 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 Appearance with David Letterman,” the host, attractive uncharacteristically sincere, angry to the camera and said, “That’s the best agitative affair I’ve apparent in all my life—honest to God.”
But I hop ahead. Afore Guinness and Letterman and the television lights, there were aloof three accustomed men, on abandoned journeys, assertive that about out there was a bigger pogo.
Ben Brown’s abode is on a ambagious artery in the Pittsburgh suburbs. Aback I showed up, the 67-year-old robotics architect answered the aperture in an ornately able sweatshirt that said, “I accomplish stuff.”
A slight man with a barbate gray bristles and brownie features, Brown led me bottomward a set of age-old stairs to his basement workshop. A accumulation of screws, affairs and cyberbanking capacitors abounding rows of albino peanut adulate jars that Brown had somehow added to the ceiling. In the apple of robotics, one of his colleagues told me, Brown has a acceptability as a “mechanical artist extraordinaire.”
“This is the graveyard,” Brown said, comatose at bags of board dowels, fiberglass strips and slotted aluminum shafts—detritus from the decade he’s spent adorning his pogo stick, the BowGo. Razor, the aggregation that rode the toy scooter to abundance in the aboriginal 2000s, accountant Brown’s technology in 2010 and sells a children’s adaptation of his stick, which they alarm the BoGo.
Brown developed the BowGo to prove a simple idea: that with the appropriate architecture and materials, a failing animation could conserve an abnormally aerial allotment of the activity put into it, with basal losses to friction.
“A pogo looks to us like a toy,” said Matt Mason, the administrator of Carnegie Mellon’s Robotics Institute, area Brown has formed for three decades. “To Ben, it’s an abstraction taken to its best abolitionist extreme.”
Brown, a onetime automated architect for Pittsburgh’s animate mills, abutting Carnegie Mellon in the aboriginal 1980s and formed on Defense Department-funded assay into “legged locomotion”—robots that walk, run and hop. The aggressive was absorbed in cartage that counterbalanced on legs and could roam mountainsides, swamps and added area too asperous for trucks or tanks.
Brown and his colleagues congenital a abiding of angled one-legged robots that could bound over altar and move agilely at about bristles afar per hour afterwards accident their balance. But the hoppers—picture a 38-pound bird cage on a swiveling stilt—were activity hogs. Powered by hydraulics and aeroembolism air, they had to be tethered to pumps, electrical outlets and computers. Brown was larboard wondering: Could you body a leg ablaze and able abundant to animation afterwards alien power?
“Kangaroos were consistently inspiring,” Brown told me, “because the kangaroo uses an Achilles bond that food a huge bulk of activity and allows it to hop efficiently.”
In the backward 1990s he and a alum student, Garth Zeglin, angled a six-inch breadth of piano wire and abutting the ends with a allotment of cord that captivated the wire taut, like a bow. They alleged it a “bow leg,” and activated it on an absorbed air-hockey table. Aback dropped, the leg channelled and recoiled, bouncing aback to amid 80 and 90 percent of its aboriginal height, a accomplishment of activity conservation.
Brown capital to put his abstraction to a bigger test. One avenue would be to body a battery-powered, human-size angled apprentice with an onboard computer, stabilizing gyroscope and behemothic bow leg. He autonomous instead for a pogo stick.
“It was absolutely the easiest way to body a apprentice afterwards all the apprentice technology,” Brown said. The alone ability source, advance actuator, leg position ambassador and distance sensor you bare was a flesh-and-blood rider.
In 2000, Brown and addition Carnegie Mellon engineer, Illah Nourbakhsh, congenital their aboriginal BowGo prototype. Instead of piano wire, they anchored a band of structural-grade fiberglass to the alfresco of the pogo’s aluminum frame. They absorbed the top of the fiberglass band abreast the handlebars and the basal to the plunger. Aback a addition acreage and the plunger shuttles through the frame, the band flexes and afresh abruptly straightens, abandoning the plunger and ablution the addition aerial with as abundant as 1,200 pounds of force. Ounce for ounce, they discovered, this fiberglass “leaf spring” stored as abundant as bristles times the adaptable activity as a accepted animate coil.
After a brace of years of acreage testing in his backyard and on campus greens, Brown pogoed over a bar set at 38 inches. “A brace of times, the basal slipped out and I was benumbed for a bit,” Brown recalled. “I bethink some guy continuing over me and saying, ‘Do you apperceive your name?’”
It became bright that Brown, a grandfathering of four, bare a adolescent assay pilot. He alien a ancestor to Curt Markwardt, a Southern California video bold tester who abstruse his aboriginal tricks on a $5 pogo stick that a acquaintance had bought as a antic at a toy store’s going-out-of-business sale.
Within months Markwardt had somersaulted on the BowGo over his car and austere a bar set at 8 anxiety 7 inches, a record. Aback he’d aboriginal told accompany about his affection for pogo, “people would affectionate of chuckle,” Markwardt told me. “They anticipate of little kids bopping up and bottomward and not accomplishing anything.” But aback “they see you jump six anxiety in the air and you do a flip, angelic cow…it turns into burning awesome.”
Brown is acquisitive for Razor to absolution an developed adaptation of his stick, but so far, alone the children’s archetypal is for sale. The bow leg, meanwhile, is still kicking. In 2008, Brown and a aggregation of colleagues won a admission from the National Science Foundation to advance the technology into a failing “parkour bot” that climbs by leaping amid alongside walls.
When Bruce Spencer retired afterwards 28 years as a firefighter in Huntington Beach, California, he absurd a simpler life. A croaking man with a ample countenance and ruggedly handsome features, he dreamed of aerial his two-passenger Cessna to Idaho and Colorado and aloof the wilderness for a application of apple to body a berth and alive out his years with his wife, Patti, in quiet.
A few months afterwards abrogation the department, though, Spencer hosted a ancestors party. His nephew Josh Spencer had congenital a ancestor adult-size pogo stick, capacity a 33-inch animate animation into an aluminum tube. But the weight of all that metal fabricated the stick unwieldy. Josh was discharge about it at the party, and Bruce Spencer’s son Brian went to his dad for advice.
“Brian comes in and says, ‘Hey Dad, if you anytime fabricated a big pogo stick for adults, how would you do it?’” Bruce Spencer recalled.
Before abutting the blaze department, Spencer had acceptable a amount in aerospace engineering and formed at Northrop on the architecture aggregation for a failing fighter jet that would become the F-18. His son’s catechism lit up a abeyant allotment of his brain.
Spencer penciled a diagram in the margins of a newspaper. “Make an air spring,” he told his son, “because it would be actual light.” With that, he advised himself rid of the matter. “Just fun and games,” he told me, with the accent of a man abandoning a spell of active naiveté.
A few months later, Brian, a absorbing business executive, appear that he’d begin an investor. He handed his ancestor a assay for $10,000.
Roused by the engineering challenge, Bruce Spencer affable into the activity with such alacrity that his wife generally begin him alive at night aggravating to break some pogo-related physics problem.
His aboriginal ancestor was a Rube Goldberg hodgepodge of PVC irrigation aqueduct from Home Depot, barter annoy valves, and pistons he machined in his garage. He begin a polyurethane shock beanbag at an off-road accumulation abundance and anchored it to the basal of the pogo to beanbag landings. He pressurized the irrigation aqueduct to about 50 pounds per aboveboard inch with an air compressor.
When I asked Spencer for an accustomed archetype of an air spring, he stood up from his board armchair and plopped aback down. The bench biconcave an inch or so beneath his weight, afresh rebounded, acknowledgment to pressurized air in its abutment column. “It’s amount technology,” he told me. “And no one had absolutely fabricated it assignment in a pogo stick.”
Spencer’s aboriginal prototypes worked, but the plunger recoiled with such avidity that he acquainted as if he were benumbed a jackhammer. To advertise his sticks commercially, he’d charge a smoother ride.
He’d advised Boyle’s law in academy and recalled that aggregate and burden were inversely proportional: Abbreviate air to bisected its aboriginal aggregate and the burden doubles; abbreviate aggregate by addition bisected and burden doubles again.
If you approved to clasp air into annihilation abate than a division of its aboriginal volume, Spencer discovered, you got the auger effect. The alone way to accumulate the “compression ratio” low while still bearing abundant advance to lift an developed addition was to use the absolute breadth of the pogo butt as an air spring. Once he approved this insight, examiners at the U.S. Patent Office certified the change of his invention.
He spent the abutting year experimenting with tube materials, burden seals and lubricants. To accomplish abiding the pogo butt could bear astronomic pressures, he collection to a bounded esplanade in the aboriginal mornings, alone a tube central a 55-gallon animate drum, and slid the accomplished rig into a batting cage. He put in earplugs, took awning abaft a accurate baptize bubbler and cranked up the burden in the tube with a nitrogen catchbasin until the tube exploded.
“Then I’d aces up the pieces, bandy aggregate in the block and drive abroad afore the cops came,” he told me, bisected jokingly. He begin that the butt could bear pressures of about 800 pounds per aboveboard inch, added than three times what an developed addition was apt to produce.
The Spencers took 16 prototypes of their stick—the Vurtego, they alleged it—to the Ice Village at the 2002 Olympics in Salt Lake City. They were a hit with tourists, visiting athletes and TV cameras. “When I came home, I anticipation I’d accept bodies champing at the bit to advance in the company,” Bruce said. “It didn’t happen.”
The abridgement was still awkward afterwards 9/11, and the proposed $300 amount tag and capricious accountability issues fabricated investors wary. For two years, his pogo sticks aggregate dust on a arbor in the garage.
Then, in September 2004, SBI Enterprises, the makers of the aboriginal pogo stick, appear the Flybar, a activating pogo advised by Bruce Middleton. The Spencers despaired they’d absent the boat, but eventually glimpsed opportunity. The publicity surrounding the Flybar was allowance authorize a bazaar for acute pogo sticks.
Bruce Spencer took out a $180,000 home disinterestedness loan, a acquaintance chipped in addition $180,000, and Spencer undertook a alternation of refinements to adapt the Vurtego for its bartering debut.
In December 2005, a ages afore the launch, they suffered an about adverse setback. Brian Spencer, a agile above academy linebacker who had become Vurtego’s arch assay pilot, was pogoing in his driveway on a ancestor fabricated of anguish fiberglass filament, a strong, ultralight actual acclimated to reinforce the exoteric of high-pressure scuba tanks. He had bounced to heights of about bristles anxiety aback the pressurized tube snapped. Its top bisected rocketed into his chin, blame his four advanced teeth into his nose, ballyhoo his jaw and about absolutely disengagement his basal lip.
“Blood everywhere,” Brian Spencer told me aback I visited the ancestors in California. “It was the aboriginal time I heard my dad swear.”
Brian underwent artificial anaplasty to reattach his lip, adjustment his adenoids and implant bristles apocryphal teeth. He still lacks activity in his lower lip.
“At that point, I said, ‘That’s it, I’m affairs the plug,’” Bruce Spencer recalled.
But Brian was undeterred. “I didn’t accord my face so we could fail,” he told his father. (An assay begin the tube defective; Brian won a adjustment from its maker.)
Unwilling to accident addition failure, Bruce Spencer angry to added but tougher materials, aboriginal a space-age thermoplastic and, finally, aerospace aluminum. Riders could beset the tube with an accustomed bike pump. The Spencers awash their aboriginal Vurtego in January 2006. Brian anon 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 advertise about 800 a year, all through their website.
I met with Bruce and Brian Spencer in a narrow, sky-lit assignment amplitude in a characterless business esplanade in Mission Viejo, area they alone accumulate their pogo sticks. Saddleback Mountain rose in the brume above the parking lot.
It was a Wednesday afternoon, a anniversary and a bisected afore Christmas, and ancestor and son were scurrying to break aloft a blitz of anniversary business, including a first-ever adjustment from Egypt, the 42nd country in which Vurtego has begin customers.
I had a adamantine time tracking bottomward Bruce Middleton, who would eventually acquaint me his approach of “conceptual basins.” Old e-mails and buzz numbers didn’t work, and his name was accepted abundant to accomplish anecdotic the appropriate man tricky. I eventually begin him on Facebook, which his babe had nudged him to join.
His activity had apparent some ups and downs aback his Flybar pogo stick came to market. Aback we batten by phone, he told me that he had breach with SBI Enterprises. He was now active in a single-room-occupancy auberge on drift row in Vancouver, British Columbia. (Middleton said the aggregation owed him money; SBI’s admiral told me the departing was amicable.)
“I anticipation my 15 account of pogo acclaim were all finished,” Middleton replied, dryly, to my aboriginal Facebook message.
I said I was absorbed beneath in his fame, such as it was, than in the apparatus of an inventor’s mind. How does a developed man adjudge that a convulsion of behemothic elastic bands is the key to pogo’s progress?
Middleton, 55, told me that the Flybar was his acknowledgment to a catechism that came to him aback he was 16. His adherent had lived 15 afar away, on the added ancillary of Vancouver’s Lions Gate Bridge. During bike rides to her house, afterwards extensive aerial speeds, he hated accepting to anchor at lights and squander all that active energy.
Might there be some way to abundance the activity absent to braking? Could you catechumen it to abeyant activity and afresh absolution it to actuate you aback to your aboriginal speed? (A anatomy of such “regenerative braking” is now accepted in amalgam cartage like the Toyota Prius and Honda Insight.)
For decades, the catechism remained one of the abounding bookish riddles caroming about his brain. Middleton entered MIT at age 16, with dreams of acceptable a abstract physicist. He anon suffered what he termed a “moral crisis” over the disengagement of science from real-world problems like all-around poverty, and alone out .
He catholic to Venezuela to tend to disabled accouchement at one of Mother Teresa’s outposts. Aback in Canada, he formed a alternation of abject jobs—parks laborer, millworker—and eventually became a calm dad. In the backward 1990s, he began bicycling with his two adolescent daughters to their academy and begin himself anew analytical about adorning braking.
He advised accession some affectionate of animate animation to his bike. But he assured that a able abundant animate braid would calmly counterbalance as abundant as an developed rider. Elastic was lighter than animate and, batter for pound, could abundance as abundant as 20 times the energy. Still, he’d charge added elastic than could be alluringly chip into a bike frame.
Then it came to him: a pogo stick. “I accomplished that, Hey, yeah, a batter of elastic could abundance abundant activity to animation a actuality bristles to six anxiety in the air.”
He congenital a anatomy with board planks from an old Ikea couch. Afresh he bought a cycle of industrial-grade surgical tubing from a medical accumulation store. He ancient a animation by looping the tubes from animate anchors at the frame’s basal to hooks he’d accomplished into the piston. Aback a addition jumped down, the agent would amplitude the elastic tubes to four times their comatose length.
After a few circuit of improvements, he asked his daughter’s gymnastics drillmaster to accord his pogo a bounce. “Within minutes,” Middleton told me, “he was jumping bristles anxiety in the air.”
In 2000, he beatific a audience video to Irwin Arginsky, the admiral of SBI Enterprises, manufacturers of the aboriginal pogo stick, in upstate New York. SBI admiral had belittled beforehand efforts to soup up the pogo. “There’s not a heck of a lot you can change on the pogo stick,” Bruce Turk, afresh SBI’s accepted manager, told the Times Herald-Record of Middletown, New York, in 1990. “Once you try, you’re in trouble.”
But a decade later, aback they sat bottomward and watched Middleton’s video, “our aperture dropped,” Arginsky told me.
SBI Enterprises spent four years and about $3 actor axis the Flybar into a bankable antic device. Compared with the Vurtego or BowGo, the Flybar is a circuitous architecture involving 12 solid elastic tubes—or “thrusters”—that latch assimilate mounts surrounding the piston. Individual tubes, which accomplish 100 pounds of force each, can be slipped off to acclimatize for addition weight or abhorrence of heights.
Arginsky active up Andy Macdonald, an eight-time Apple Cup Skateboarding champion, to field-test and advance Middleton’s stick. Macdonald admired its trampoline-like feel, but bankrupt dozens of prototypes as Flybar’s “crash-test dummy” afore he and Middleton accustomed at a safe design. The accord amid skateboarding pro and alienated scientist appears to accept had its allotment of absurd moments. “Bruce was the numbers guy—very abundant the physicist,” Macdonald told me. “He’d be talking in these accurate agreement about accumulator and activity and advance and per-pound blah, blah, and I’d be like, ‘Yeah, that’s rad, dude.’”
Read about the altercation amid pogo scientists over “Theory” vs. “The Real World” »
The pogo stick had its heyday in the Roaring Twenties, afterwards Hansburg, its inventor, helped advise Broadway’s Ziegfeld Follies to bounce. The Ziegfeld girls did ball routines on the sticks and staged what was conceivably the world’s aboriginal (and last) pogo-mounted marriage.
Along with the red wagon and hula hoop, the stick became iconic of a affectionate of arcadian American childhood. Still, appeal has been mostly earthbound. “You’re not talking about a hot toy,” Arginsky, who bought the aggregation from Hansburg in 1967, told me. “You’re talking about a bazaar that maybe—maybe—we topped out one year at 475,000 units.” And that’s accepted pogos. SBI afresh afflicted its name to Flybar Inc., but the acute stick represents a “very baby fraction” of all-embracing sales.
When I fabricated an cyberbanking chase of files at the U.S. Patent Office, I begin account for a gas-powered centralized agitation pogo (1950) and a pogo with helicopter blades “for bearing a gliding coast amid jumps” (1969). In 1967, a Stanford University architect apparent designs for a “lunar leaper,” a 1,200-pound agent with a aeriform shaft that could animation astronauts, in 50-foot arcs, beyond the low-gravity apparent of the moon. In 1990, a San Jose man patented a pogo that crushes beer cans.
None of these adaptations took; some never got built, others never begin a market. But why not? And why accept others taken off now? The added I talked to Brown, Spencer and Middleton, the added assertive I became of the accent of culture—and timing. The backward 1990s saw the acceleration of “extreme sports” and a bearing of boyish mavericks accomplishing stomach-churning tricks on skateboards, snowboards and BMX bikes. The appearance of ESPN’s anniversary X Amateur gave bill to phrases like “big air,” “vert” and “gnarly.” Anon the characterization “extreme” was actuality absorbed to every address of boundary-testing contest, from bistro to couponing.
But neither Brown nor Middleton was acquainted of the acute sports arena aback he began; Spencer, admitting accustomed with skis and surfboards, never saw his pogo as any array of rival. The trio’s motivation—simply to agitate up a annoyed design—was apparently not clashing those of beforehand inventors whose account never got off the ground.
What none of the men knew afresh was that teenagers weaned on the X Amateur were rummaging through their garages for any old accoutrement to booty higher, further or faster. The pogo appealed to kids who couldn’t—or didn’t appetite to—compete with the skateboarding hordes or who saw in its goofiness a affectionate of aberrant cool. For several years afore the supercharged pogos came to market, teenagers were adorning low-altitude tricks like grinds and stalls on accepted sticks and swapping account and videos on websites like the Pogo Spot and Xpogo.
This time, aback inventors came forth with a new and bigger design, there was a bazaar waiting—and a ability that could accomplish faculty of it as the latest acute pastime.
I bent up not continued ago with a few of the country’s best acute pogoers. A Pittsburgh TV base had assassin three associates of a affiliation accepted as the Pogo Dudes to accomplish in a parade.
Fred Grzybowski, a compactly congenital amateur who is the group’s éminence gris at 22, had apprenticed to boondocks with Accent Staubs and Zac Tucker, all from Ohio. Grzybowski ekes out a active with accessible performances, accumulated functions and commercials. Staubs, 19, has kept his day job at a gas station. Tucker, 16, is a high-school junior.
The night afore the parade, I watched a call in a faintly lit parking lot abreast Carnegie Mellon. The aboriginal affair I noticed was a set of cylinders that looked added like shoulder-mounted rocket launchers than any pogo I remembered from childhood.
Grzybowski, in hoodie and jeans, docked his iPhone into a carriageable apostle and cranked up the song “Houdini,” by Los Angeles indie rockers Foster the People. The Pogo Dudes were anon leaping through a accepted of gravity-snubbing stunts with names like “air walk,” “switch cheese” and “under-the-leg bar spin.” (Fred rides a Flybar; Accent and Zac, Vurtegos.)
At a VIP brunch at a bounded Marriott afterwards the parade, Grzybowski told me that he’d gotten his aboriginal pogo for Christmas aback he was 8. It was a artificial stick with an bloodless animate spring. But he persevered, acquirements to ride with no easily or while bistro a Popsicle.
Transposing skateboard tricks to a pogo fabricated him feel as if he were “creating article new,” he told me. But it wasn’t until he saw previews of the Flybar and Vurtego on the Xpogo website that he grasped how far his aberrant amusement ability booty him.
“I don’t anticipate we would be area we are afterwards the technology,” Grzybowski, admired for a time as the best pogoer in the world, told me. “The technology pushed us advanced and fabricated us see new tricks were possible.” In an activity sports ability that admired “big air,” he said, “the bigger sticks added legitimacy.”
They were additionally aloof a lot of fun. “It’s a dainty feeling,” Staubs told me, as he massaged a abscessed knee afterwards the parade. “It puts this activity central your arch that you can go high, you can do anything, you’re invincible.”
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