As I was loading our foam noodles into the car for a trip to the pool a couple weeks ago, I wondered who invented these foam toys that seem to breed on their own. Someone had to have invented these, right?
Later that night, I tracked down the inventor. It was not easy. Last week, however, I talked with him and found this invention was far from a guaranteed success.
Over thirty years ago, Steve Hartman was a young aspiring engineer entrepreneur. He and his dad started their own company in Ontario, Canada called Industrial Thermal Polymers. With a used tandem extrusion machine they made backer rods. These far from glamorous foam rods are used to fill joints before caulking for the construction industry.
Like growing gremlins, these grey foam rods soon found their way to his home and eventually his pool. Steve noticed his nieces and nephews loved playing with them. So in the mid-1980s, Steve developed some color versions and tried to market them in Canada as a water toy.
Retailers balked; “What can you do with them and why would anyone buy them?” They sold only trickle until their big break came when Canadian Tire, Canada’s Wal-Mart, placed a large order in 1987. While the Canadians were soon enjoying the open-ended wonder of pool noodles, they were still missing in action in the U.S. until a few big orders arrived in the early 1990s. The rest is as they say, history.
Today, their noodle is North America’s top selling water toy. Their factory in Brampton, Ontario produces an estimated 70% of all pool noodles in North America. Who says China makes everything? In fact, they recently sent an order of pool noodles to China. How about that?
Here are some production facts:
- They typically start making them in November to be ready for orders in early spring for the Southern US.
- Typically finish production each year in July.
- This past year they produced between 700 and 800 truckloads of pool noodles
- This equates to about 6 million individual pool noodles.
Thank you Canada.
So, in essence it took six years before this idea became an enduring fad. Six years to realize every pool needed a breeding stock of foam noodles. Sometimes if one ignores the critics, good things can happen.
While Steve has little bit of regret he did not patent the noodle, maybe not as much as Samsung has now, he says he is often surprised by how popular they still are. In our household they serve as lazy adult barges or can double as light-saber in times of crisis by young pool padawans.
What have you used a pool noodle for?