Harold von Braunhut may sound like the name of a rocket scientist, but this Harold obsessed over a particular species of brine shrimp—the kind that went into suspended animation when their watery home evaporated. The shrimp—Artemia nyos—remains nearly lifeless for years, until dunked in water once more. Then—Halleluja!—it rises from its shrimpy grave.
This made the shrimp harvestable as fish food, but could there be a toy in this mix? What sort of ambivalently-evil genius would think of that?
Harold von Braunhut was born in Tennessee, and was just plain Harold Braunhut back then–the “von” was added later. This obituary says he wanted to seem more German, that he was born Jewish yet associated with “some of the most extreme racist and anti-semitic organisations in the country” (the obit quoting the Washington Post here.)
Very strange. On a less controversial note, von Braunhut held 195 patents in his lifetime.
Early on, von Braunhut formed Honey Toy Industries and teamed up with a scientist, Dr. Anthony D’Agostino, to create the right chemicals that would make ordinary water a healthy environment for the shrimp. After three years of work, “Instant Life” debuted in 1960, but no one cared.
Honey Toys had no budget for TV, but ads in comic books were pretty cheap. Instant Life was promoted in comics, but not too successfully. Until 1962, that is, when von Braunhut changed the name from Instant Life to Sea Monkeys.
The toy–if it can be called that–took off. How many comics did he advertise in? “I did 303 million pages of advertising per year,” von Braunhut told the Los Angeles Times.
Sea Monkeys, the ads claimed, played and frolicked and could be trained to do tricks. Did the critters deliver? Well, no, but what did you expect from a 49-cent mail order package? (I don’t know the date of the ad above, but if you search for these ads you can see the price rise over the years, up to $13.99)
By the late 1960s, Sea Monkeys were being sold in stores, with environs that resembled racetracks or submarines.
Over the years, the creatures evolved, literally. Lots of effort went into breeding bigger, faster-growing, sea monkeys. Let’s just hope that those who inherited Harold von Braunhut’s company have no plans for world domination.
You can buy Sea Monkeys today from stores like Toys-R-Us and Amazon. The little set up at right costs $10.49. A company called Schylling makes them.
Von Braunhut died about 10 years ago. With 195 patents you might be wondering what other goodies he made and sold. Remember those X-Ray glasses–S-Ray Spex–also sold through comic books? Those were his. Invisible Goldfish was another wild creation.