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Tom Kuhn Turbo-Yo
Exhibit #3658
TypePrototype
ShapeModified
AxleBearing
FinishPolished
ColorAluminum
PackagingNone
ConstructionMulti-piece aluminum
ResponseNone
Diameter57 mm
Width26 mm
GapFixed
Weight48 gm
ConditionMint
Number Produced39
Date1990
OwnerRick Brough
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On September 19, 1990, Dr. Thomas Kuhn, DDS, mailed a Turbo-Yo prototype yo-yo along with a letter, dated September 18, 1990. The first sentence in the letter read: "Congratulations! You own a yo-yo which will surely become a valuable collectors item." Those words, written more than 30 years ago, have since become extraodinarily prophetic. Today, the Turbo-Yo yo-yo is sought after by serious collectors and commands thousands of dollars for original mint, complete, and fully documented editions. Officially, 39 aluminum Turbo-Yo prototypes were individually handmade in San Francisco, California.

Fundamentally, every metal ball bearing yo-yo sold since then (patented or not) can trace its lineage back to the Turbo-Yo prototype model. The yo-yo definitively marked the debut of the modern ball bearing yo-yo that is known today. And, over time, it conferred on Tom the sobriquet "Father of the Modern Yo-Yo".

The prototype seen in this exhibit was based on the Tom Kuhn Silver Bullet (SB-1) released in 1984. That model was the first ever aluminum, fixed axle yo-yo. The weight and dimensional specifications of the SB-1, the Turbo-Yo, and the subsequent SB-2, are nearly identical.

Again, from the September 18, 1990 letter, Tom states:

"We [Tom and likely Don Watson, et. al.] began experimenting with miniature ball bearings in 1987 and found that making a yo-yo that would spin a long time was not so difficult. Such ball bearing yo-yos had already been made [see footnote ‡ below]. The challenge was to design one which had playability as well. One which would do all of the tricks—not merely the "picture tricks". It was unsatisfying to have the yo-yo free wheel nicely at the end of the string, but then snag when the string had to be doubled over on itself or a loop-the-loop was needed to end a trick."

The Turbo-Yo was a standout for its time not only because of the ball bearing axle, but the take-apart design as well. It also had optional weight rings and an adjustable string gap. All these very unique features combined to make a yo-yo that was highly playable and customizable. Original Turbo-Yo prototypes included an extra bearing, an extra set of adjusting screws for the string gap, two optional weight rings, and the string gap tool that is stamped/branded with TURBO-YO (see page 10 in the Turbo-Yo PDF in this exhibit to see an example). If you are searching for a Turbo-Yo, check for the original string gap tool. In some cases, I've noticed that the original TURBO-YO-branded tool has been replaced with an unbranded tool that came from either a Silver Bullet 2 (SB-2) or from the Sears Craftsman product line. So, beware.

Within two months of the Turbo-Yo's debut, its official namesake, the Silver Bullet 2, was released to the general public November, 1990.

Original retail price: $100 US (about $205 in 2021)

Of historical interest...
The use of ball bearings in yo-yos since 1959.
• 1959 - Jack Sauer places a ball bearing in a "yo-yo doll", marking the first known use of a ball bearing axle. He is issued US patent 2,888,776 for a vertical movable doll.
• 1965 - Milton S. Isaacson puts a ball bearing in a "typical" yo-yo. This yo-yo was never put into production and sold. He is issued US patent 3,175,326 for a ball bearing toy.
• 1984 - SKF promotes their miniature ball bearing line by having novelty ball bearing yo-yos made by Wigart & Co.
• 1990 - Tom Kuhn releases the Turbo-Yo metal ball bearing yo-yo prototype, which was quickly followed by the release of the production version known as the Silver Bullet 2 (SB-2).

DOWNLOAD TURBO-YO PDF (2.01 MB) to see the full Turbo-Yo documentation that includes the initial canceled envelope with accompanying one page, signed letter, and two page THE TURBO-YO STORY (pages 1-4); second canceled envelope with accompanying first draft instruction manual (pages 5-9); stapled plastic bag with original spare parts including TURBO-YO string gap tool (page 10); and the original bag of cotton yo-yo strings (page 11). The SB-2 announcement postcard is also seen in the PDF. It was mailed to customers in November, 1990 (pages 12-13).

‡ About the same time as the release of the Tom Kuhn Silver Bullet (SB-1) in 1984, SKF of Sweden released novelty wooden yo-yos and plastic yo-yos (see SKF Royo exhibit for one such example), each with their own miniature ball bearing axle. Because SKF was not a toy maker, their likely intent was a simple way to advertise and market their miniature ball bearings in a clever and memorable way. While these yo-yos are considered the first ball bearing yo-yos ever put into production, they lacked playability. The string gap was a fixed, narrow width, and you could not loop with them or take them apart.
Other Views
Profile
Close-up of side A
Internals showing bearing and string gap screw

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