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Here’s How That Furby Craze In The ’90s REALLY Began — And Why They Still Give You Nightmares
In the fall of 1998, something new arrived on toy scene, and it’s never been quite the same since. I’m talking, of course, about Furby — that colorful, Mogwai-esque, nonsense-gabbling creature that became the “It” toy of the era. The history of the Furby.
however, is much deeper than you might expect; indeed, in order to get the full story, we actually have to look at three separate stories.
Because it was a team of three people who were ultimately responsible for bringing the furry.
electronic pet to life: David Hampton, Caleb Chung, and Richard C. Levy.
But it was a long, long road from the start to where we are now — and, as 2016’s relaunch of the toy proved, that road might not even be over yet.
1998 profile in the New York Times
According to a 1998 profile in the New York Times, Hampton spent his childhood in Michigan messing around with electronics.
He started by fixing broken radios for neighbors; at 13, he got a job in a television repair shop;
and not too long after that, he built a ham radio.
He graduated from high school in 1970 and enlisted immediately in the Navy specifically so he could study electronics.
He spent eight years in the service, specializing in aviation electronics, traveling a ton, and picking up a variety of languages including Japanese, Thai, Chinese, and Hebrew as he went.
After he got out, he landed several jobs in Silicon Valley, a couple of which were in toy development;
indeed, he did a stint with Mattel, where he met Caleb Chung. Eventually, he broke off and created a design and consulting company of his own.
2014 interview with filmmaker Gregory
Chung, meanwhile, didn’t have a formal education in electronics; he said in a 2014 interview with filmmaker Gregory Green that he graduated high school.
but also that his family was low income and subsequently moved around a lot when he was a kid. But as a result of us upbringing.
he also said he “didn’t grow up with boundaries in my thinking” — which helped him cultivate terrific skills in thinking outside the box.
t’s easy to see how these two guys might come together to create something cool — and in the late ’90s, that’s exactly what they did.
90s-era electronic pet: The Tamagotchi
Perhaps unsurprisingly, the Furby was in part inspired by an earlier ‘90s-era electronic pet: The Tamagotchi.
In early 1997, Hampton and Chung saw the Tamagotchi in action for the first time at the annual Toy Fair trade show in New York.
— and while there was no denying how cool the idea was, one big issue Hampton spotted with the Tamagotchi according to the New York Times profile was the fact that you couldn’t pet it.
So he and Chung set out to design an electronic companion you could pet.
The working name for the toy was was “Furball.” It spoke in a mishmash of the languages Hampton had picked up while he was in the Navy.
Want to see the very first Furby?
Check out the video of Chung’s interview with Gregory Green.
At the 3:10 mark, he brings out the first one ever built, along with the design book with all the schematics and notes that went into actually creating the thing:
When it came time to license the concept, Hampton and Chung brought aboard Richard C. Levy.
According to a biography on the Lemelson-MIT Program website, Levy matriculated from Boston’s Emerson College — but his degree, which he earned in 1968, wasn’t in electronics.
It was in television and cinematography. After he graduated, he spent a number of years promoting feature films, including 30 for Paramount, and eventually founded his own company aimed at producing films .
and television documentaries.
But he didn’t stay working in film forever. He was appointed to the Senior Executive Service in 1980 and later went on to become one of the principal architects of the WORLDNET satellite network. In his spare time (I know, I know — what spare time?), he had also begun inventing things — mainly toys and games.
With his background in both marketing and invention, Levy was a natural fit for the Furby project;
it was thanks to his efforts that the trio struck a licensing deal with Tiger Electronics in 1997, according to a 2012 interview with Levy in Inventor’s Eye.
Not too long after that, Tiger was acquired by Hasbro, who gave the team resources they had only been able to dream about before in order to develop the product;
and then, in October 1998, Furby made its public debut at New York’s fabled FAO Schwarz toy store.
35,000 Furbies backordered
The store had 35,000 Furbies backordered by the end of the week.
To say Furby was a hit is putting it incredibly mildly.
1998, 1.8 million Furbies were sold, according to TIME (and remember, it was only available for a few months at the end of that year, which makes the number even more impressive);
then, in 1999, the total number skyrocketed to 14 million. Although the toy itself initially only cost around $35, resellers routinely offloaded them to eager customers for hundreds of dollars.
By the end of the toy’s first three years, 40 million Furbies had been sold, according to Gizmodo.
oversaturation of the market
Like all fads, though, Furby didn’t retain its popularity for more than a few years. Although an updated version was launched in 2005, it sold poorly, and by 2007, the toy had all but vanished from shelves.
(By that point, Webkinz were the hot new thing.) Some blame the oversaturation of the market for the original Furby’s eventual downfall — that is, there may just have been too many varieties of Furby available.
which ultimately resulted in supply far exceeding demand — although it’s also possible that what made the toy cool also made it kind of creepy: On the one hand, it was almost like it was alive; and on the other, it was… almost like it was alive.
Furby was a big hit
As Caleb Chung put it in the 2014 interview he did with Gregory Green, “Furby was a big hit because it, on purpose, was made to let you believe it was alive.
All electronic toys up to then were ‘Squeeze my hand, I’ll count to 10’ … a very self-centered toy. And so, it became human in a way that other products hadn’t been. It became human and present.”
However, that human-like presence may also have driven people away from it: “And people thought that was scary and weird and freaky, because it encroaches on being human,”
Chung added. Furby doesn’t exactly look like a person, but there’s something of the uncanny valley about it all the same.