Industrial Design Student Invents "Operation" Board Game in 1962, Gets Screwed on $

In 1962, John Spinello was an Industrial Design student at the University of Illinois. One class assignment was to design a game that incorporated electronics, a pretty new-fangled task at the time.

Spinello came up with a game called “Death Valley,” and got an A. According to the Hasbro archives,

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“[The game] was metal with holes and crooked lines drilled through the top and came with a metal rod. Players had to have a steady hand to get the rod in the openings without touching the sides. If the probe did touch, a circuit would be completed between two oppositely charged metal plates and would set off a loud bell.”

A family friend, Sam Cottone, was a modelmaker at Marvin Glass Associates. (MGA, founded by toy designer Marvin Glass, is credited with bringing “Lite-Brite,” “Mouse Trap,” “Rock ‘Em Sock ‘Em Robots,” “Simon” and other popular games to the market.) Cottone set up a meeting, and Glass offered Spinello $500 for the design, along with the promise of a job at the company when he graduated.

$500 is roughly $5,100 in 2023 dollars, and Spinello took it—in exchange for signing away all rights. The job offer from Glass never materialized.

Glass sold “Death Valley” to the Milton Bradley Company, who redesigned the game into “Operation.”

Image: PaRappa 276, CC BY-SA 4.0

“It was designed with a buzzer and a light bulb instead of a bell. Tweezers replaced the metal probe and the holes were filled with plastic pieces, such as a pencil for Writer’s Cramp and a horse for Charley Horse. Players had to steadily place the metal tool inside the hole, while also removing the cause of the patient’s pain without hitting a nerve and causing him more grief.”

In the 1980s Milton Bradley was folded into Hasbro, who continued producing “Operation.” Here’s an ’80s commercial of the long-lived game:

In 2014, Spinello estimated the game had earned some $40 million. This was revealed in a HuffPost article with the depressing title, “John Spinello, Inventor Of ‘Operation’ Game, Can’t Afford Real-Life Operation.” Spinello’s health required surgery to the tune of $25,000, which he didn’t have.

For the record, Spinello stated he wasn’t bitter about not receiving royalties. “I prefer not to dwell on that aspect and focus more on the joy that the game has brought to so many over the years.”

Fellow toy designers Tim Walsh and Peggy Brown, learning of Spinello’s plight, started a GoFundMe for him. They managed to raise $32,422.

Furthermore Hasbro, who had nothing to do with the original 1962 Marvin Glass deal, stepped in with some welcome news.

“Today we informed Mr. Spinello,” the company said in a statement in October of 2014, “that Hasbro plans to purchase the [“Death Valley”] prototype with the hope that the funds will help to defray his medical costs. We plan to proudly display it at Hasbro’s global headquarters in Pawtucket, RI to honor his contribution to Hasbro’s gaming history.”

The amount paid was undisclosed.

Today John Spinello is alive and well.

Moral of the story, if you’re an ID student or design entrepreneur and you invent a promising game: Consider crowdfunding it and retaining the rights for yourself.

Source: core77

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