Yoyo: a definition
“a toy which consists of a circular object that can be made to go up and down a long piece of string to which it is tied” (Cambridge University Press Dictionary)
The origins of the modern yoyo can be traced far back into history. The yoyo is thought to have originated in China in 1000B.C. where it took the form of two connected ivory discs that were made to move up and down a silk string.
The earliest surviving examples have been dated to around 500B.C. where they are mentioned in Greek historical records and can be seen depicted in vase paintings. It is thought that this makes the yoyo the second oldest toy in the world (the doll is at number one). The earliest surviving example dates from around this period and is on display in the National Museum of Athens in Greece.
Ancient Greek yoyos came in two types: the first was made from wood or metal and was likely to have been used for day-to-day play. The second was constructed from terra cotta (a brittle ceramic material which would have made it difficult to use as a toy) and is thought to have been for ceremonial purposes only. In ancient Greek society a young man would often mark his passage into adulthood by giving up his toys as a sacrifice to the gods, so this may have been the function of these decorative ceramic yoyos.
The Philippines and origins of the name
There is evidence to suggest that a type of weapon similar to the yoyo was used for hunting in the Philippines from the 16th century onwards. It is thought that this could have lead to its use as a toy by Filipino children and even the adoption of the name ‘yoyo’ which means ‘come back’ in the native language of the area. This is not proven however and it is also possible that the yoyo could have been introduced to the Philippines from China along the busy trade routes of the time.
The main advance of the Philippine yoyo design over earlier models was the introduction of the ‘looped slip string’ which means looping the string around the yoyo axle rather than tying directly on to it. This enables much greater stability in the movements of the body of the yoyo and opens up the possibility of a huge range of free-spin tricks.
The Philippines also has another important part to play in the development of the modern yoyo; as we will see later the introduction of the yoyo name to the USA and its subsequent explosion in popularity was largely down to the actions of a clever Filipino businessman.
1700 – 1900
The yoyo spread across Europe from the Far East during the 18th and 19th centuries, becoming especially popular amongst the nobility and aristocracy of France, Scotland and England. Yoyos during this period were often extremely ornate and constructed from ivory or glass with polished brass axles. A young Prince Louis XVII of France and the Prince of Wales (future King George IV of England) were both pictured playing with yoyos at this time which would have greatly increased the toy’s popularity with the upper classes.
The yoyo craze hit the USA in the 1920’s with a man named Pedro Flores and the start of his ‘Yo-yo Manufacturing Company’ in Santa Barbara, California. Flores was from the Philippines and recognised the huge potential of the toy to become a best seller elsewhere in the world. Although patents existed for similar toys in the US prior to his arrival, he is credited with introducing the Filipino style of yoyo with the ‘looped slip string’. His company was soon producing over 3,000 yoyos an hour and its success attracted an American businessman named Donald F. Duncan who purchased the company from Flores around 1930. Duncan renamed the business and soon spread the yoyo craze across North America using clever marketing campaigns which included a travelling troupe of ‘Duncan YoYo Professionals’. These performers were constantly on tour showing off Duncan products and the amazing tricks that could be performed with them. Duncan introduced the ‘butterfly’ yoyo configuration which reversed the traditional ‘imperial’ style and gave a greater area for catching the yoyo on the string when performing certain tricks. By 1962 ‘The Duncan Toy Company’ was selling over 40 million yoyos per year and had trade marked the name ‘yoyo’, seriously damaging the ability of competitors to market their own similar products. Sadly all was not well financially and the Duncan Company filed for bankruptcy in 1965. This was due partly to the excessive costs involved in trying to protect the yoyo name trademark (a fight that was ultimately to prove unsuccessful). Following the collapse of the company, the Duncan brand name was bought by Flambeau Plastics who continue to manufacture a range of Duncan yoyos to this day.
21st century yoyo
There have been several advances since the 1970’s that have further increased the popularity of yoyos worldwide. Most of these centre around the axle and increasing spin times to allow more complicated and advanced tricks to be performed. In 1978 Tom Kuhn invented the world’s first yoyo that enabled the user to change axles. Then in 1980 Michael Caffrey patented a yoyo with a centrifugal clutch transaxle that allowed the yoyo to spin freely when rotating at high speed at the bottom of the string but automatically return the yoyo to the user as soon as the spin speed dropped to a certain level. A further breakthrough occurred in 1990 when Kuhn released the world’s first true aluminium trans-axle ball-bearing design. These improvements in yoyo technology have helped advanced players to push the boundaries of yoyo tricks to new levels.
The simplicity of the basic yoyo along with these new technological advances means that it has stood the test of time and remained a hugely popular toy: delighting children and adults alike for over 2,500 years.