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The Humble Yo-yo

The Humble Yo-yo
The yo-yo is so much more than a cheap way to keep kids (somewhat) entertained. One of the oldest toys around, the simple concept of two discs, an axle and a string has way more potential than you thought...
Buzzle Staff
Chances are good that you've owned a yo-yo at some point - chances are equally good that the novelty wore off after a dozen throws that resulted in exactly zero returns. Then someone else would pick up the yo-yo and say, "No, it's easy - watch", and perform a flawless throw, sleeper and return. If that person was really smug, they might throw in a "walk the dog" and some string tricks. And then you threw your yo-yo away and went to play video games.
Youth Appeal
There's something about the yo-yo that is like a siren's call to children - maybe it's the brightly-colored plastic, the intriguing simplicity of the thing, or the fact that while mom may not be likely to drop $35 on the latest toy, she's very likely to give you a couple of dollars for a cheap yo-yo. And that's why the yo-yo didn't work for you - it was cheap. Cheap yo-yos are constructed simply out of cheap plastic and fixed axles, with a knotted string. It can work, yes - people have been playing with yo-yos since 500 BC, and for most of that history, they were constructed just like your dollar-store version.
But ironically, "yo-yoing" with a very basic model is not the ideal place to start for beginners. It's like if you had to bake a cake for the first time - sure, you could do it over a campfire, but it would probably come out better in a modern temperature-controlled oven.
Long Story Short
As mentioned, yo-yos have been around for millennia - we have the pottery and paintings to prove it. But they sort of faded into obscurity over the years until the early 20th century, when an enterprising entrepreneur opened a yo-yo factory in Santa Barbara in 1928. The toy took off, and within a year, the company expanded to two additional factories. Another entrepreneur noticed the craze and bought the company, which was a risky thing to do during the Depression. The risk paid off though, because that entrepreneur's name was Duncan - as in Duncan Yo-yos, one of the best-known manufacturers to this day.
They Come and Go
Since that time, yo-yos have come into and out of public notice like waves on a beach. In the 1960s, Duncan launched a fresh media campaign to revive lagging sales, and introduced the Butterfly yo-yo - the one that looks like the two halves are put together backwards. This model made returns and string tricks easier for the beginner, and popularity soared. Things settled down shortly thereafter, but it was that brief 1960s surge that ensured a place for yo-yos in every dollar store and toy store forever. During the 1990s, yo-yos once again became popular following a few advances in design that made tricks even easier. The ball-bearing mechanism was perfected, allowing for longer spins and snappier returns, and modifiable fixed-axle models became popular because they allowed users to take apart their yo-yos and customize them as needed.
Gettin' a Little Crazy
And customize they do - serious yo-yoers change the color, finish, and design of their yo-yos in pursuit of the flawless trick. There are even a number of common modifications that alter the friction created during the drop and spin, which allows for smoother performance of the more complicated tricks. And boy, do those tricks get complicated! There are dozens of yo-yo shapes, and each shape is optimized for dozens of different tricks. Yo-yo competitors compete in nine different divisions, some of which require two-handed simultaneous tricks, and some competitors even mix acrobatics and break dancing into freestyle routines.
So, awesomeness is possible. With many, many hours of practice. And not with your dollar-store yo-yo, either.