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  • Jim Bessman

Astrojax merges science, environmental and social responsibility, and fun at Toy Fair

Larry Shaw at the Astrojax booth at Toy Fair

They call it “The Future of the Yo-Yo,” but Astrojax already has quite the past and present.

Creator Larry Shaw came up with the orbiting ball toy over 30 years ago while a grad student in theoretical physics at Cornell—and demonstrated the latest and most refined version at last month’s Toy Fair at New York’s Javits Center.

“I was absentmindedly playing around with some hex nuts, nylon sleevings and dental floss at a friend’s physics lab,” said Shaw. “He was a floss freak, and I fiddled with the stuff and suddenly saw that the hex nuts were orbiting on the floss, and was able to get them doing cool horizontal, vertical and figure-eight orbits—and got the idea they could make a better toy than a yo-yo.”

Shaw proceeded to experiment with dozens of prototypes made of various materials, eventually realizing that the smoothness of the orbits depended on the size and composition of the balls. Instead of the hex nuts, the toy now consists of three balls on a string where the center ball slides: One of the two end balls is held, and by oscillating the hand holding the ball, the other two orbit in vertical or horizontal or figure-eight (butterfly orbits)—and any number of other patterns.

After rejection from skeptical patent attorneys, Shaw wrote the patent himself, and after earning his PhD in physics passed the patent law bar exam and found work as a patent agent.

But finding a company to manufacture the Astrojax proved much harder than inventing, optimizing and patenting it, and Shaw was rejected by 135 toy companies before licensing it in 1993 to a small bubble-toy company that successfully sold it under the name Orbit Balls. After a trademark conflict forced a name change, he settled on Astrojax since the orbiting balls seemed similar to orbiting planets, and he had envisioned playing jacks in outer space.

In 1996, Shaw formed a toy company to produce and market Astrojax, and it won major toy awards. Then in 2000, he licensed it to another company, which introduced new Astrojax models and sold it in mass market chains. Astrojax appropriately did orbit in outer space in 2003, when NASA took the original soft foam version of the toy into space as part of its Toys in Space education program.

Astrojax has had other incarnations since the initial foam offering, including a hard plastic one with flashing LED lights.

Most recently, Shaw reacquired the license and is now marketing the new Astrojax Weave—assembled with hand-made crochet balls woven in Guatemala and using environmentally-friendly recycled cork stuffing, precision-tooled metal and injection-molded plastic. There are different models—the entry level Maya Star and Sky versions, the Spectra with heavier balls and longer and thicker low-friction string, and the Pro for advanced tricks and maneuvers; the parts in some of them are modular and can be switched around to customize the whole, and the strings are easily adjustable in length.

The complex scientific design of the Astrojax Weave product, said Shaw, necessitates a new standard when it comes to the crochet work—a product of two and a-half years in putting together a fair trade manufacturing infrastructure calling for extensive training of 50 Guatemalan women to meet such exacting specifications as crocheting approximately 1,000 stitches for each ball.

“We pay three times the market wage per stitch, so it really is fair trade—and very rewarding,” said Shaw. Besides the stitchers, Astrojax employs eight others to stuff the balls with the cork, screen them for quality, and assemble the sets.

Fair trade is also a key part of Astrojax’s mission: to develop and implement environmentally and socially responsible business practices in delivering open-ended, creative and physical play that is vital to the development of children and greatly beneficial to adults.

As a “free-dimensional instrument of creativity, joy, and self-expression,” Astrojax play, per company philosophy, promotes both self-acceptance and acceptance of others via “real-world, free-dimensional, open-ended play [that] should be valued as one of the most important and effective ways for children to learn and grow. And in a world where so much is on-screen, structured, and pre-formatted, free-dimensional play is also beneficial for adults.”

Astrojax tutorial