When a boy in ancient Greece reached a certain age, he was required to give up a number of his childhood toys to the gods. Some of these sacrifices were beautifully painted terra cotta yo-yos, the oldest such toys found in museums. Of course, yo-yos made of clay are entirely impractical, and odds are Grecian children actually played with "whirligigs" made of wood and metal, whereas the fancy ones only existed for rites of passage.

The history of the yo-yo is all over the map. Some believe the toy got its start in China, but evidence of yo-yos also date to 700s AD Mayan society. Records show that 1700s Filipino hunters would use rocks tied to long cords to hunt wild animals from trees, but that probably has little to do with the popularity of yo-yos in the Philippines. More likely, the yo-yo migrated to the Philippines, India, Greece, and Egypt from China.

The yo-yo, however, wasn't simply a child's plaything for 16th-century French aristocrats. During the French Revolution and the "Reign of Terror" in the late 1700s, the former elite would play with yo-yos of ivory and glass to relieve stress, as they were fleeing the country or facing the guillotine. In fact, the French name for yo-yo was "l'emigrette" meaning "leave the country," and they were also known as "joujou de Normandie" and "de Coblenz," a city where aristocrats took refuge.

The future King Louis XVII is depicted at age four playing with a l'emigrette in a 1789 painting. In French playwright Beaumarchais' 1792 version of "The Marriage of Figaro," the title character expresses his nervousness by spinning his l'emigrette, saying, “It is a noble toy, which dispels the fatigue of thinking.” Napoleon, too, was known to carry a yo-yo—perhaps unwisely, he and his men relaxed before the 1815 Battle of Waterloo by whirling these toys.

By the time l'emigrettes made it to England, it was so associated with the French it was called by a French word, "bandalore," as well as "incroyable," meaning "a French dandy," and also "quiz." A 1791 print showing the Prince of Wales, who would become George IV, playing with the toy made the yo-yo highly fashionable in Britain, and it was soon called the Prince of Wales' toy.

The first patent for a yo-yo in the United States—then called a bandalore or a "whirligig"— was granted to James L. Haven and Charles Hittrick in Cincinnati, Ohio, in 1866. One year later, Charles Kirchof, a German immigrant, patented the return wheel. Soon, others were issued patents for bandalore improvements, including how the string is attached, the shape of the outer discs, and the weight of the rim.

The toy was dubbed "yo-yo" in a 1916 “Scientific American Supplement” article called "Filipino Toys," and some said the name derived from the Filipino phrase translated as "come-...

In the 1920s, a Filipino man named Pedro Flores immigrated to the United States, bringing the first yo-yo with him. He established Flores Yo-Yos in the San Francisco Bay Area to sell these toys, each of which was hand carved out of a single piece of wood. Instead of having the string tied to the axle, as was traditional with bandalores, the Flores yo-yo’s string looped around the axle, which let the toy spin at the end of the string. This development lead to the birth of modern-day yo-yoing, which allows for elaborate tricks, instead of just bouncing up and down.

In the late '20s, Donald F. Duncan saw a child playing with a Flores yo-yo and realized it had the potential to be a nationwide sensation. He soon joined Flores' company as a marketer, hosting yo-yo competitions. By 1929, he had bought Flores out of the company, renaming it the Genuine Duncan Yo-Yo Company, and in 1932, he trademarked the word "yo-yo," prompting competitors to use words and phrases like "come-back," "return," "returning top," "whirl-a-gig," and "twirler" to describe their products. He sent "Duncan Yo-Yo Professionals" on tours across the country, where they would teach yo-yo skills and hold competitions.

Before long, in the 1930s, popular tin-train manufacturer Louis Marx began selling tin yo-yos he called Lumars, in whistling and non-whistling versions, in the United Kingdom, and then in the U.S. Many important yo-yo developments occurred in the '30s. The invention of "finger ring with swivel" prevented the string from tightening uncomfortably around a digit. Alphonso Flores Mirafuentes built a yo-yo that could be taken apart, using a nut and bolt.

In the early '40s, Duncan engineers were working on a plastic yo-yo, but they hadn't perfected it before plastic became a regulated wartime commodity. Then, in 1946, Duncan moved his company to Luck, Wisconsin, which got the distinction of being the "Yo-Yo Capital of the World." The Luck factory put out 3,600 maple yo-yos an hour. The concept of adding "starburst" ribs inside the yo-yo led to the first successful plastic yo-yos in the 1950s.

The late '50s and early '60s also brought about the first yo-yos that use ball bearing axles and "adjustable string gaps." Around that time, Pedro Flores briefly relaunched his Flores brand, but he could not keep up with the exploding sales of the wildly popular plastic Duncan Yo-Yos. In 1962, that company sold 45 million of these toys, in a country with only 40 million kids.

Unfortunately, Duncan could not keep up with the demand, either. Overtime wages and material costs began to sink the company. The firm also fought to keep the yo-yo trademark, but lost it in 1965 in a decision by the Federal Court of Appeals that said "yo-yo" had become the common noun. Duncan went bankrupt in 1965, and the famous name was sold to the Flambeau Plastics Company, which currently makes eleven models of Duncan yo-yos.

In 1976, Duncan's son, Donald F. Duncan, Jr., started a yo-yo company called "Duncraft," but after Flambeau objected, the company changed its name to "Duracraft," which became "Playmaxx" in 1988. Duncan, Jr.'s shining success is his high-tech ProYo, with its central spool, modern shape, and weighted plastic rim.

Over the following decades, yo-yos got more and more complex, as inventors came up with yo-yos that could be taken apart by hand, yo-yos with replaceable axles, yo-yos with transaxles, and yo-yos with "Bumble Bee" ball bearings. Michael Caffrey's 1980 "Yo-Yo With a Brain" had a free-spinning sleeve and a spring-loaded clutch mechanism that promoted an automatic return.

The yo-yo has had some big moments in late-20th-century history. For example, Youth International Party founder Abbie Hoffman was cited for contempt of Congress when he got out a yo-yo to "walk the dog" for the House Subcommittee on Un-American Activities. At the other end of the political spectrum, in 1974, President Richard Nixon yo-yoed on stage at the opening of the new grounds of the Grand Ole Opry in Nashville.

Yo-yos were even sent to space, as a part of NASA's Toys in Space program. The first was taken on the Space Shuttle Discovery on April 12, 1985, and used in several experiments on the effects of microgravity. And on July 13, 1992, a yo-yo was taken aboard the Space Shuttle Atlantis to be filmed for an educational video.

To honor Donald F. Duncan Sr.'s influence, his birthday, June 6, has been named National Yo-Yo Day.

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