Oil Company chemists invent new plastic, but transition from lab to market proves difficult. Enter Wham-O.
In 1954, the Oklahoma-based oil and natural gas company’s scientists developed high-density polyethylene. Marketing executives named their latest petroleum product Marlex, but searched in vain for buyers of the plastic. Then the Wham-O toy company found the plastic ideal for making hoops and flying platters.
Prompted by a post World War II boom in demand for plastics, Phillips Petroleum invested $50 million to bring its own miracle product – Marlex – to market in 1954. It would stand out from among thousands of the company’s patents.
Phillips Petroleum gambled that the new plastic would be perfect for all manner of emerging products trying to keep up with consumer demand. With millions of dollars already committed, company executives and Wall Street investors expected immediate results from the unusual lab product.
Fun with Polyethylene
Marlex, a high-density polyethylene, was developed by Phillips chemists Paul Hogan and Robert Banks – who were researching gasoline additives. In their experiments, Hogan and Banks began to study catalysts.
“In June 1951, they set up an experiment in which they modified their original catalyst (nickel oxide) to include small amounts of chromium oxide,” notes the American Chemical Society. Their work was expected to produce low-molecular-weight hydrocarbons.
“As Paul Hogan recalls it, he was standing outside the laboratory when Banks came out saying, ‘Hey, we’ve got something new coming in our kettle that we’ve never seen before.’ Running inside, they saw that the nickel oxide had produced the expected liquids. But the chromium had produced a white, solid material. Hogan and Banks were looking at a new polymer — crystalline polypropylene.”
A few years later when Phillips introduced high-density polyethylene in 1954, under the brand name Marlex, “company marketing executives were wildly optimistic, expecting that the product would be a big hit and that Phillips would not be able to keep it on the shelves.”
But the transition from laboratory to mass production was far more difficult than executives had anticipated. When customers failed to materialize, the dingy, inconsistently sized, off–specification pellets accumulated. Phillips Petroleum found itself with no buyers and warehouses growing full of Marlex. The Bartlesville company searched for new customers.
Relief came from an unexpected source.
Petroleum Product Hoop Toy
The Wham-O Company was born in a California garage in 1948 when Richard Knerr and Arthur “Spuds” Melin began making 75-cent wooden slingshots using a jigsaw they purchased on an installment plan.
The company’s name came from its first product, the “Wham-O Slingshot” – named for the sound made when a pebble hit a target. The company’s mail-order business grew rapidly and in 1957 Wham-O added a flying disc toy, the “Pluto Platter” — today’s Frisbee — to their product line. The next year, they introduced a simple Australian amusement to America, the “Hula-Hoop.”
“The great obsession of 1958 — the undisputed granddaddy of American fads…the hoop rewrote toy merchandising history,” noted Richard Johnson in his 1985 book American Fads. When the phenomenal hoop craze ignited, Wham-O needed plastic tubing. A lot of it.
The company first used a W.R. Grace & Company product called Grex — a petroleum-based plastic produced in Pennsylvania. In Titusville, birthplace of the U.S. oil industry in 1859, the Skyline Plastics Company worked overtime extruding Grex into the plastic Hula-Hoops as the craze swirled across the nation.
Retired Titusville plant superintendent Robert Poux, 83, remembers 125 employees working three-shifts, seven days a week, just to keep up. Wham-O sold more than 25 million Hula-Hoops in the first four months (at $1.98 each). They sold more than 100 million in two years.
Wham-O’s nationwide daily production ultimately peaked at about 20,000 per day. There soon was not enough Grex and Phillips Petroleum’s once ignored miracle polypropylene, Marlex, was suddenly very much in demand.
Plastic Hula-Hoop plants sprang up in Chicago, Newark and Toronto. Canada. The completely unanticipated demand for Marlex gave Phillips the time necessary to resolve initial production problems and position itself as a prime source of plastic resins.
New industrial and consumer uses ensured Phillips Petroleum’s plastics research would pay back the $50 million investment many times over. As the Hula-Hoop fad diminished, Wham-O continued using Marlex — for the production of Frisbees.
The Wham-O Frisbee
In 1948, a California newspaper reported, “Two local men, pooling resources after the words ‘flying saucers’ shocked the world a year ago, have invented a new, patented plastic toy shaped like the originally reported saucer.”
Walter Morrison and Warren Franscioni of San Louis Obispo formed Partners in Plastic (Pipco) and sold their “Flyin’ Saucers” for 25 cents each. By 1955, Morrison had split away and was selling his “Pluto Platters” — the basic design of the modern Frisbee — when Wham-O acquired the rights and launched the first Frisbee. Morrison will receive more than one million dollars in royalties for his invention.
Wham-O began producing its own plastic Frisbees on January 13, 1957.
“Sales soared for the toy, due to Wham-O’s clever marketing of Frisbee playing as a new sport,” says Mary Bellis in her article, “First Flight of the Frisbee.” In 1967, New Jersey high school students invented Ultimate Frisbee, a cross between football, soccer and basketball.
According to Bellis, it was also 1967 that Wham-O’s Ed Headrick patented an improved design that became today’s Frisbee, with its band of raised ridges — called the Rings of Headrick — that stabilized flight “as opposed to the wobbly flight of its predecessor the Pluto Platter.”
According to the Disc Golf Association, Watsonville, California. Disc Golf began with “Steady” Ed Headrick, the father of disc golf and modern day disc sports.
Today, because young people often fail to realize plastics are made from petroleum, many community oil and gas museums include these iconic toys in “petroleum products” exhibits.
Legendary Phillips Petroleum chemist and plastics pioneer John Paul Hogan, 92, of Bartlesville, died February 19, 2012.
“Described by those who knew him as a modest man who did not care to dwell on his many scientific achievements and accolades, Hogan’s name is found on more than 50 patents,” noted the Bartlesville Examiner-Enterprise.
Thanks to his accomplishments relating to high-density plastics and processes, Hogan was called “Mr. Marlex.”
In 1998, the American Chemical Society gave Robert Banks (posthumously) and Hogan a “Heroes of Chemistry” award for the use of petrochemicals in the automotive industries. Hogan was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2001.
The American Oil & Gas Historical Society preserves U.S. petroleum history. Join AOGHS today and help maintain this energy education website and expand historical research. For annual sponsorship information, contact firstname.lastname@example.org. © 2020 Bruce A. Wells.
Citation Information – Article Title: “Petroleum Product Hoopla.” Authors: B.A. Wells and K.L. Wells. Website Name: American Oil & Gas Historical Society. URL: https://aoghs.org/products/petroleum-product-hoopla. Last Updated: January 17, 2021. Original Published Date: February 3, 2011.