The California native was a teenager when he befriended Arthur “Spud” Melin outside a Pasadena movie theater. The pair, who would remain lifelong pals and business partners, attended the University of Southern California but had no interest in joining their fathers’ companies after graduation. Instead, they started a small business training falcons. Few customers wanted to buy the birds, yet many were intrigued by the homemade wooden slingshots used to feed the creatures. So Knerr and Melin launched Wham-O Inc. in 1948, naming the business for the sound a slingshot makes when it hits its target. Its motto: “Our Business Is Fun.”
Over the next four decades, Wham-O expanded into other sporting goods and toys, including the bouncy Superball, the Slip ‘N Slide water slide, the Water Wiggle sprinkler, the Limbo Game and Silly String. But their most prominent contribution to the world of toys was a large ring called the Hula Hoop. A fad was born the moment kids placed the hoop around their hips and started swaying. Within four months of its 1958 release, Wham-O sold more than 25 million units. By 1960, 100 million Hula Hoops had sold.
Another popular product made its way into Americana after Knerr and Melin discovered Walter “Fred” Morrison playing with a flying disk on a beach in 1955. They immediately bought the rights to the disk, made some simple modifications and renamed it. The Frisbee instantly found a niche on college campuses and with dog owners. It also sparked the creation of an Ultimate Frisbee competition. To date, the company has sold more than 100 million Frisbees.
Not all of Wham-O’s products found an audience or became a craze. The company’s $119 do-it-yourself fallout shelter, which was marketed during the height of the Cold War, sold very few units. Wham-O did accept millions of orders for its Instant Fish aquarium kit, but the African fish refused to mate so the product was discontinued.
Wham-O was purchased by the Kransco Group Companies in 1982, earning Knerr and Melin $12 million for their endeavors. Melin died in 2002 at 77. In 1994, Mattel acquired Wham-O from Kransco; three years later, a group of investors bought it back and made it an independent company once again.