There have been plenty of toys that allowed to children to put their natural creative energies to work. Legos, Erector sets, and countless other similar items let kids build elaborate kingdoms and complex machines to satisfy the need to create. Sea Monkeys took this process one step further and allowed more enterprising youngsters to actually create life. With the help of elaborate ads that seemed to appear in every comic book released during the late 1960’s and 1970’s, the scientific marvels known as Sea Monkeys became one of the most popular toys of all time.
Sea Monkeys are not actually monkeys, but they do come from the sea and are real living things (contrary to popular belief and urban legend). To be specific, they are “Artemia Salina,” or “brine shrimp” in layman’s terms. They were thought of as mere fish food for many years until Harold von Braunhut, a man who is famous among toy enthusiasts for inventing X-Ray Spex, discovered these marvels of the sea. He saw their potential as a pet and developed a simple, three-step kit that allowed aspiring young marine biologists to raise their own brine shrimp in a container of water.
Honey Toy Industries obtained the rights to Von Braunhut’s kit and began marketing it in 1960 as Instant Life. When it didn’t become an immediate hit, Von Braunhut came up with the brainstorm of advertising the kit in comic books. Von Braunhut also noticed that the little brine shrimp resembled monkeys when they grew to adulthood, so he added the phrase “Sea Monkeys” to the packaging of Instant Life. As a result, sales for the newly-named Sea Monkeys began to skyrocket, and Sea Monkeys ads became an ubiquitous presence in the ad pages of comic books everywhere.
By the 1970’s, Instant Life was one of the coolest toys a kid could own. As a result of its success, Honey Toy Industries changed its name to the more official-sounding Transcience Corporation. Also, Instant Life became known simply as Sea Monkeys, since the fanciful depictions of Sea Monkey families used in the ads had become the crucial selling point. Indeed, comic book-reading kids everywhere fantasized about raising their own kingdoms of these strange humanoid-looking creatures.
Sea Monkeys gained additional hipness when they were packaged with special containers called Ocean Zoos. These mini-aquariums have since become the definitive home for Sea Monkeys. Sea Monkeys gained another home when the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway was introduced in 1974. This device, which took advantage of the fact that Sea Monkeys swim against the current, included “tracks” so the Sea Monkey owner could raise champion Sea Monkeys. Another success, the Speedway led to follow-ups like Sea-Monkey Cycle Race, Sea-Monkey Ski Trails, and Sea-Monkey Fox Hunt. There was also the Incredible Sea-Bubble, a mini-aquarium on a chain that could be worn as a necklace.
The Sea Monkeys phenomenon had become an institution by the end of the 1970’s. Its success also inspired a follow-up pet from Transcience Corporation known as the Crazy Crab. They were actually hermit crabs, a land-dwelling scavenger species. Like the Sea Monkeys, they became a hit and inspired a craze. In the 1980’s and early 1990’s, Sea Monkeys moved on to new distributors like Larami and Basic Fun with middling degrees of success. They were no longer as hip as they were during their 1970’s heyday, but the novelty of Sea Monkeys remained strong enough to keep them selling on name-value alone.
In the mid-1990’s, Sea Monkeys made a triumphant comeback when they began being distributed by ExploraToys. Now that the toy was old enough to be retro-hip, both kids and the adults who grew up with the Sea Monkey phenomenon were buying Sea Monkeys. They have also transcended their comic-book ad origins to be sold in national toy-store chains. And as long as toy fanatics want to take their love of creating things to the next level, Sea Monkeys will allow them to “create life.”