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The Bongo Board was invented in 1952 by Stanley Washburn, Jr. (1908-2005) and
manufactured by his Bongo Corporation in New York City. It came in two sizes, the
slightly bigger of which is in the above photos. In 1956 Washburn was issued patent
of its design that he submitted in 1953 with the filing for a patent for a "roller board
(his description of his invention's structure, operation and purposes).
In World War II Washburn was a cargo pilot in the U.S. Army's Air Transport Command.
After the war he was the system promotion director of Pan American World Airways.
He got the basic idea for his later invention in 1942, when his military plane was
grounded in the Gold Coast (the British colony in Africa that is now Ghana), where he
saw children balancing on a plank atop a log (in some reports) or a plank atop an
uprooted tree trunk (in other reports). On a dare, he took a turn and elicited howls of
glee from those children when, upon mounting the board, he immediately fell on his
back, which was the end of his attempt. Later in the war, he saw children balance on
such equipment in India when he flew there.
Those African and Indian designs lacked the Bongo Board's transverse track and
end-stops, the two features that Washburn added to make the board controllable by a
non-expert. What prompted him to create his version of a balance board in December,
1952 was his ten-year-old daughter's request for a Christmas present that no one else
had ever had.
These and other details of the Bongo Board's origin are in a short article by Washburn
in BRITISH SKI YEARBOOK 1956, which was reprinted in Washburn's 2001 book,
FACTS, FABLES AND FRENZY ON LAND, SEA AND AIR (pub. Pentland Press).
Video of a 1950's newsreel of the Bongo Board, from Internet Archive:
It was probably no accident that the person who would become the inventor of the first
rolling balance board safe enough to ride was an airline executive and World War II pilot.
Someone with those two kinds of professional experience would be keenly aware of and
interested in the precariousness and improvability of humans' sense of balance. Flyers'
balance problems are described and explained in the "'Ear Deaths' and 'Graveyard Spirals'"
chapter of the book BALANCE: IN SEARCH OF THE LOST SENSE by Scott McCredie
(published in 2007 by Little, Brown). Click here for a relevant paragraph from that chapter
and some context.
Born in Minneapolis, Washburn graduated from Yale in 1931.
A Bongo Board appeared in the centerfold photo of the August 1967 issue of Playboy
Magazine. The earliest published mentions of the Bongo Board that I have found are the
200-word article "This Game Is Tough" in the October 25, 1953 issue of Parade Magazine
(the syndicated supplement to Sunday newspapers) and the 350-word article "Bongo Board
Causes Stir" in the November 1953 issue of Ski Magazine (published then in Norwich,
Vermont and now in Boulder, Colorado). The three photos in the Parade Magazine article
seem to be from the set of the Garry Moore Show (the CBS Television variety show). One
of them includes Washburn, who is seen showing the board to Moore. The Ski Magazine
article's photo appears below this paragraph, by permission of Ski Magazine, a division of
Warren Miller Entertainment.
After the Bongo Board,
1950's to now:
A Guide to Balance Boards That Roll is a text that includes information about 50
models that are current (as of 2008) and the URL of each model's manufacturer.
Wikipedia's "Balance board" article has information about boards that roll and
ones that rock or wobble without rolling.
Click here for the drawings of 8 patented balance-board designs that were submitted
to the U.S. Patent Office and U.S. Patent and Trademark Office between 1955 and 1989.
Maybe they all will eventually be produced!
I don't know who made that compilation of the patent drawings of those 8 designs or
what website the compilation was presented at.
21 U.S. patents that cite Washburn's Bongo Board patent are listed, with a short descrip-
tion of the design of each of the 21, at the Free Patents Online website. (The 21 designs
were submitted to the patent office between 1957 and 2007.) To see that list, type the
number of Washburn's patent (which is 2,764,411) in the Search box at that website,
then click "Roller board device" in the resulting page, then click "View patents that cite
this patent" to the right of "Referenced by:" in the next resulting page. To see the full
description by the inventor of any of the 21 designs, click that design's entry in the list.
To see the drawings of the 21 designs, either create an account (for free) at that website
or go to the Patent Number Search page of the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office, whose
homepage's URL is http://www.uspto.gov.
Almost all models that came after the Bongo Board, whether patented or not, are better
than the Bongo Board, either because they have new features or because they are more
responsive to the shifts of a rider's weight.
Copyright 2008 David Maisel
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