By the time Neil W. Rabens actually received the patent for Twister in July of 1969, his invention had already been sold twice, and it was well on it's way to becoming an American pop-culture icon.
Rabens was a young commercial artist in the mid 1960s, when he was hired along with Chuck Foley to develop toys and games for a midwest design firm. One day Rabens came up with an innovative idea: What if we made a game where people were the pieces?
"I came up with the hand and foot thing, but I had the mat divided so the person on each side would be working independently," Rabens said.
During a brainstorming session, Foley took Rabens idea, and added a twist. Literally. He was the one that decided to lay the circles out in a row so that people would intertwine, and that’s pretty much what made the game.
The idea for the game, which they called Pretzel, belonged to Rabens and Foley. But the game itself, and it’s future belonged to their boss Reyn Guyer.
"The same day, we signed the patents, filled out the patents, we turned the game over to Guyer, because that’s what he hired us for was to come up with toys and games," Rabens said.
Guyer took the product to the board gaming mecca of the day: Springfield, Massachusetts, home of Milton Bradley- maker of hundreds of titles, from Candyland to The Game of Life. The brass at Milton Bradley had never seen anything like Pretzel. The company bought the game, and made one final tweak, changing the name to Twister.
When they released it in 1966. They expected it to strike a chord with consumers. Instead, it struck something of a nerve. Many retailers, including Sears, refused to stock it. Critics decried it as "sex in a box."
"That upset me somewhat, because that was not the idea," Rabens said. "That didn't even enter my mind when we were doing that stuff."
But the controversy – and lackluster sales – all went by the wayside on May 3, 1966. That’s when Johnny Carson played a friendly and hilarious game of Twister with Green Acres bombshell Eva Gabor on The Tonight Show to the delight of the studio audience, and millions of viewers across the country.
"I was very tickled because I distinctly remember Johnny Carson, when he played it with Eva Gabor, he made a remark when they were done, ‘whoever came up with that was pretty clever.’ Which made me feel pretty good," Rabens said.
It made the folks at Milton Bradley feel pretty good, too. Retailers, including Sears, clamored to get on board. By the end of the year, 3 million copies of Twister were sold. By the end of the decade, teenage basement parties were changed forever.
Reyn Guyer stayed in toys and games, developing another smash hit a few years later with the Nerf ball. Rhode Island company Hasbro bought out Milton Bradley in the 80’s and still sells Twister.
As for Neil Ravens and Chuck Foley, they never made a dime on their invention, something Foley, who died last year, resented – and fought - for the rest of his life. But Rabens, now 85, says he was just doing his job. And looking back, he has no regrets.
"I’m flattered that I was a part of it. I’ve had a pretty good life. I’ve been married 55 years to my wife. We’re still doing real well. My kids are all successful, I’m proud of them. What else can you ask out of life?"
Twister: An American Icon, thanks to the mind of Neil W. Rabens, the acumen of the gang at Milton Bradley, and the magic touch of Johnny Carson. Officially patented 45 years ago this week.