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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

$2,000 loss helped launch new invention for kids          By Paul Niemann

[FEB. 2, 2006]  You probably grew up with the toy that George Lerner invented, yet you probably never heard of George Lerner until now.

George was born in New York City in 1922. He invented the toy in 1952 by using pieces of various vegetables as the parts. This didn't always sit well with parents who preach to their kids that they shouldn't play with their food.

He became a household name. Not George, but his toy invention.

Our hero even enjoyed a TV and movie career. Again, not George, but his toy invention.

George launched his invention when he sold the rights to it for $5,000 to a cereal company. Or is it spelled "serial"? Potato, potatoe. Either way, he had a hunch that his toy invention could do more than just serve as a premium when parents bought a box of cereal.

So George bought back the rights for $7,000 and incurred a $2,000 short-term loss in the process.

George's invention was the first toy to be advertised on TV. This lovable toy character even received a few write-in votes in the 1985 mayoral race in Boise, Idaho. He married in 1953. Once again, not George, but his toy invention.

George sold the rights to his toy to the Hassenfeld brothers, Henry and Merrill, whose company, Hasbro, manufactures and markets the product.

To recap, here are the clues:

  • George made the toy by using pieces of various vegetables.
  • Potato, potatoe.
  • He married in 1953.
  • The toy received a few write-in votes in the 1985 mayoral race in Boise, Idaho (which is in the heart of potato country).

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We're talking about Mr. Potato Head, the toy vegetable that is loved by kids all over the world.

Mr. Potato Head's popularity has made him the ideal spokesman -- or "spokespud" -- for many causes, and he's received many awards and honors, including:

  • He was the spokesman for the American Cancer Society's annual Great American Smokeout for several years, beginning in 1987. When the surgeon general asked that Mr. Potato Head give up smoking, Mr. Potato Head handed over his last pipe.
  • In 1992, Mr. Potato Head received an award on the White House lawn from the President's Council on Physical Fitness.
  • In 2000, the Chicago Cubs had a Mr. Potato Head Day at Wrigley Field, and Mr. Potato Head also threw out the first pitch (wait 'til next year, Cub fans).
  • Also in 2000, Mr. Potato Head was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame.
  • One day in 2002, Mr. Potato Head rang the opening bell of the New York Stock Exchange.

In the process, he created an American icon. It wasn't Mr. Potato Head who created the icon, but rather his inventor, George Lerner.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about Mr. Potato Head by visiting the official Invention Mysteries website.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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