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Tom Kuhn Turbo-Yo
Exhibit #3658
ConstructionMulti-piece aluminum
Diameter57 mm
Width26 mm
Weight48 gm
Number Produced39
OwnerRick Brough

On September 19, 1990, Dr. Thomas Kuhn, DDS, mailed a Turbo-Yo 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 extraordinarily prophetic. Today, the famous Turbo-Yo is sought after by serious collectors and commands thousands of dollars for original mint, complete, and fully documented editions. Officially, 39 aluminum Turbo-Yos were individually handmade in San Francisco, California. Today, it is one of the most important and historic modern yo-yos.

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 Turbo-Yo definitively marked the debut of the modern ball bearing yo-yo that we know today. And, over time, it conferred on Tom the sobriquet "Father of the Modern [Bearing] Yo-Yo".

The Turbo-Yo was based on the Tom Kuhn Silver Bullet (SB-1) released in 1984. That model was the world's first 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 aluminum bodied Turbo-Yo was a clear standout for its time, not only because of the long-spin ball bearing axle, but the convenient take-apart design as well. It also had optional weight rings and an adjustable string gap, all for customizable performance. These unique features -- something yo-yo players completely take for granted today -- combined to make a metal yo-yo that was highly playable and tunable for its time.

Original Turbo-Yos included various spare parts:

• One extra bearing (size I).
• One extra set of adjusting screws for the string gap.
• Two optional weight rings.
• One 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).
• Five cotton strings.

If you are searching for a Turbo-Yo, check that it comes with the original string gap tool. Sometimes, the original TURBO-YO-branded tool has been replaced with an unbranded tool that came from either a Silver Bullet 2 (SB-2) set or from Sears Craftsman.

Within two months of the Turbo-Yo's debut to a limited number of players and collectors, its official namesake, the Tom Kuhn Silver Bullet 2, was released to the general public, November 1990.

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

Of historical interest...
The first known uses of miniature ball bearing axles in yo-yos starting in 1959 through 1990.
• 1959 - Jack Sauer invents a "yo-yo doll", marking the first known use of a ball bearing axle to make a toy go up and down. Mr. Sauer is issued US patent 2,888,776 for a vertically movable doll.
• 1965 - Milton S. Isaacson puts a ball bearing in a "typical" yo-yo. For unknown reasons, the yo-yo was never put into production and sold. Mr. Isaacson is issued US patent 3,175,326 for a ball bearing toy.
• 1984 - SKF promotes their miniature ball bearing product line by having novelty plastic-bodied ball bearing yo-yos made by Wigart & Co. It's not clear when their wooden take-apart version first appeared or who it was made by.
• 1990 - Tom Kuhn releases the Turbo-Yo metal ball bearing yo-yo prototype about August or September. The first modern ball bearing yo-yo. It was quickly followed by the release of the production version known as the Silver Bullet 2 (SB-2) in November.

DOWNLOAD TURBO-YO PDF (2.01 MB). 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). It also includes a second canceled envelope with accompanying first draft instruction manual (pages 5-9). A stapled plastic bag with original spare parts including the "TURBO-YO" string gap tool (page 10). And finally, 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).

Original Tom Kuhn Silver Bullet series:
Silver Bullet (SB-1) - 1984
Turbo-Yo (SB-2 prototype) - 1990
Silver Bullet 2 (SB-2) - 1990 in aluminum with anodized black on outer face and anodized tortoise shell on outer rims and in polished aluminum
Silver Bullet 3 (SB-3) - 2012
Silver Bullet Series limited box set 4 (contains SB-1, SB-2, and SB-3)
Silver Bullet 4 (SB-4) - 2014

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 model included SKF's own miniature ball bearing axle. Because SKF was not a toy maker, their likely intent was a simple and fun way to advertise and market their miniature ball bearing product line for medical devices. While these yo-yos are considered the first ball bearing yo-yos ever put into production, they lacked playability that Tom mentions in his 1990 letter. The string gap of the SKF yo-yo was a fixed, narrow width (that is, non-adjustable), and you could not loop with them or take them apart like the Tom Kuhn Turbo-Yo and Silver Bullet 2.
Other Views
Close-up of side A
Internals showing bearing and string gap screw

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