The History of Astrojax


In 1986, while I was a graduate student in theoretical physics at Cornell University, I was absent-mindedly playing with some hex nuts, nylon sleevings, and dental floss in my friend's low-temperature physics laboratory.  Suddenly, I noticed that the hex nuts were orbiting on the dental floss, and found that I could make cool horizontal, vertical and figure-eight orbits, and I said "Hey, this should be a toy!"

Intrigued and excited, I started to develop the idea.  While it might at first appear to be a simple system, it's actually quite difficult to solve the equations of motion mathematically.  To optimize the smoothness of the motion and prevent the string from tangling around the center ball, I experimented with dozens of prototypes made of wood, metal, plastic, and eventually polyurethane foam.  I soon realized that the smoothness of the orbits depended on the shape of the bore and having a central weight in the balls to lower the moment of inertia (see the Science section).

After taking my invention to a number of patent attorneys who told me I wouldn't be able to get a patent for something as simple as three balls on a string, I wrote the patent myself using a book called "Patent It Yourself."  Based on the patent I wrote, each group of attorneys I consulted with offered me a job.  So after I received my PhD in physics, I took the patent law bar exam and began working in a law firm as a patent agent.

Finding the right company to produce Astrojax was the next hurdle.  I was surprised that this step was much more difficult than inventing the toy, optimizing it, or even obtaining the patent.  I showed Astrojax to 135 toy companies.  However, Astrojax wasn't understood or appreciated by the industry since it didn't fit into their standard categories.  Smaller companies didn't want to expand to handle a different type of toy, and the larger, more-established companies were very risk/innovation adverse.  (Executives at the larger toy companies have very little motivation to take on new innovative items since they generally don't financially benefit much, if at all, from the upside and once they take on something new and innovative they risk failure and make their job much more difficult.)  Only six companies showed any interest in licensing the toy, and with five of them the interest was short-lived.

In 1993, I licensed the toy to a small bubble-toy company called Tangent Toys.  For the product's launch, the toy company arranged a six-month exclusive distribution deal with the Nature Company, and it was Nature Company's best-selling product ... until management forbid their employees from playing with it when they figured out that it was also their employees' favorite demo item, to the detriment of all the other items in the store which they were also supposed to be demonstrating.  After the initial six-month exclusive, the Nature Company took a six-month exclusive on a glow-in-the-dark version of the toy.

Initially, the toy was sold under the name Orbit Balls.  But because of a trademark conflict, we had to change the name.  People often ask me how I came up with the name Astrojax ...  Because the orbiting of the balls is similar to the orbiting of the planets, we wanted some sort of outer space aspect to the name. Hence the "Astro." Then, I was thinking about what would happen if you played with jacks (the game with one ball and a bunch of those funny shaped metal pieces) in outer space (... well, it would be tough because the jacks would scatter in every direction). Also, I liked jack/jacks because it is sort of a generic/general word that has many uses: Apple Jacks, Cracker Jacks, cracker jack, hi-jack, jack for a car, jack of all trades, etc. Jacks became jax, and you have Astrojax! 

In 1996, I formed a toy company called New Toy Classics to produce and market Astrojax. Over the next several years, Astrojax won three major toy awards, the Guinness Book of World Records created three categories for Astrojax, and sales grew each consecutive year.

In 2000, I licensed Astrojax to a company called Active People.  During Active People's tenure, the V-Max, Saturn, MX and Aqua models of Astrojax were introduced.  In the early 2000s Astrojax was sold through mass market chains such as Toys R' Us, Walmart, Target, and K-Mart.  In 2003, NASA took the original foam version of Astrojax into outer space as part of their Toys in Space education program.

It was an amazing thrill to watch from NASA's command center in Houston as the astronauts played with it and really seemed to enjoy it.  In 2013, I terminated Active People's licensing contract.

We are currently in the process of relaunching Astrojax with the new Astrojax Weave.  It is very important to me to make every aspect of the process beautiful, from the product's functionality and appearance, to the environmental impact, to the way business is conducted. The Astrojax Weave has hand-made, fair trade crocheted balls, a modular design, and environmentally-friendly recycled cork stuffing.  The balls are larger, softer, and easier to handle than previous versions, and the orbits are super smooth and responsive.  I believe this is the best version of Astrojax yet! 

On to the next chapter in the history of Astrojax ...

Happy Orbiting Everyone!
Larry Shaw