© 1999 by H.B. Koplowitz
In 1957, Harold von Braunhut stared into a vat of brine shrimp and saw … Sea-Monkeys. Brine shrimp, as some people know, are not really shrimp, but tiny crustaceous plankton used for live food on fish farms and in aquariums. Sea-Monkeys, as any baby boomer who picked up a comic book in the ’60s knows, are “amazing miracle” “instant pets,” a magic powder in a packet that lets you “create life” just by adding water. Brine shrimp are a quirk of nature that can survive for years in a state of suspended animation. But it took a quirk of marketing — and Harold von Braunhut — to turn them into a pop cultural icon. Now Sea-Monkeys, and the people who love them, have invaded cyberspace.
“Sea-Monkey Central Official Webbed-Site” <www.sea-monkey.com> was created by a 38-year-old graphic designer and closet Sea-Monkey fanatic in Kansas City who would only identify himself as “Aqua-Boy.” As a kid, Aqua-Boy got hooked on Sea-Monkeys from the comic book ads. He “never had great success with the product but stayed enamored with the packaging.” Years later, after a hard day at the office, he decided to try Sea-Monkeys again, and from that point his interest “changed from a mild source of amusement to a state of obsessed frenzy.” In other words, he became a Sea-Monkeys memorabilia collector. The bug soon spread to collecting other novelty items invented by von Braunhut, and then to other “bio-grow toys” — Ant Farms, Sea Horse Corrals, Magic, Aqua and Moon Rocks, Instant Fish and Mexican Jumping Beans.
“Sea-Monkey Central” has product information, grow tips and a list of Sea-Monkey mentions in the media, including “The Amazing Live Sea-Monkeys,” CBS’s short-lived Saturday morning live action children’s program starring Howie Mandel. It also has a fascinating biography of von Braunhut, who first unveiled his “Instant Life” in 1960. For 49 cents you could buy a kit that included water clarifier, nutrient and the powdery brine shrimp eggs. Just add water and the powder would magically come to life. Sometimes. Not surprisingly, toy stores and parents were skeptical. Then von Braunhut decided to appeal to his target market of kids directly by advertising in comic books, and mail orders started pouring in.
Soon von Braunhut shifted the emphasis from “Instant Life” to “Sea-Monkeys” (in interviews he says he got the name from the monkey-like tails on the tiny creatures). As Aqua-Boy explains, “if the instant hatching brine pets didn’t live for long, the friendly Sea-Monkey family on the product’s packaging would last forever in the memories of baby boomers.” By the late 1960s, Sea-Monkeys had become so popular that toy stores began carrying them, so kids could buy them without the dreaded “4 to 6 week” postal delay.
Sea-Monkeys were usually sold with accessories, the first being a mini-aquarium called the “Micro-View Ocean-Zoo,” a plastic jar with built-in magnifying lenses, crater textured sea-floor base and aerated lid. Von Braunhut’s forte was turning a natural phenomenon into entertainment. For example, taking advantage of the fact that brine shrimp swim against water currents like trout, in 1974 he unveiled the Deluxe Sea-Monkey Speedway, in which you could race Sea-Monkeys through plastic tubes.
For girls there was the Incredible Sea-Bubble, a small aquarium that could be worn on a necklace. And kids could create their own peep show with the Ripley’s “Believe It Or Not” Sea-Circus kit marketed in 1964. The aquarium fit inside a cardboard box decorated like a circus tent with a stage window for Sea-Monkey viewing, along with a cardboard audience and ticket stand. While Sea-Monkeys are von Braunhut’s most famous invention, his other creations include Crazy Crabs, Invisible Goldfish and X-Ray Spex, cardboard glasses with funky red and white hypnotic spiral lenses that create an optical illusion of seeing through clothes or skin.
Von Braunhut still mixes the secret Sea-Monkey ingredients at Transcience, his home-based business in Maryland. And over the decades he has improved the breed so the critters are bigger and guaranteed to live two years. Distribution has gone through several hands, and yesterday’s “instant life” has become today’s educational toy distributed by ExploraToy <www.exploratoy.com>.
ExploraToy Vice President George C. Atamian said Sea-Monkeys fit into their product line of items that “improve people’s lives by helping them learn.” He described von Braunhut as “brilliant and eccentric,” adding that the 74-year-old inventor has 193 patents, “incredible energy and a truculence for mediocrity.” He said von Braunhut is quite proprietary about his Sea-Monkeys, and that when the inventor dies, so will the recipe for making them.
ExploraToy’s latest kits include the Ghostly Galleon, an aquarium with a glow-in-the-dark sunken ship, and Ocean Zoo, a replica of the original mini-aquarium. Recently it began selling the Fun Time Aquarium Watch, a five-function digital watch with water-filled bubble dial where you can carry your Sea-Monkeys on your wrist.
Another Sea-Monkey fan Web site is the “Sea-Monkey Worship Page” <users.uniserve.com/~sbarclay/seamonk.htm>, created by Susan Barclay, a.k.a. Sea-Monkey Lady. The Web site lets you “Ask the Sea-Monkey Lady” and post announcements of Sea-Monkey births and deaths. There’s also tips and tricks you can do with Sea-Monkeys, and information on where you can buy Sea-Monkeys online, through the mail and in stores.
One of the few sites where you can buy Sea-Monkey kits on the Internet is “As Seen On TV” <www.cornells.com/asseentv>, which is selling the Aquarium Watches for $13. “As Seen on TV” also peddles such classics of TV advertising as Chia Pets, Gator Grip, Super Slicer and The Smart Clapper.
Finally, lest you think all Sea-Monkey fans are fishy, or that the “Los Angeles Times” is not, check out the Sea-Monkey Webcam live from the newsroom at “The Times” <www.latimes.com/HOME/HELP/WEBSITE/WEBCAM>. Scooped again.