Ballrace: the ‘scientific toy’ of the Sixties to the iconic ‘executive toy’ of the Seventies…
Richard Loncraine was a film-student at the Royal College of Art, when, in 1967, he designed the chromed-steel ‘scientific toy’ with swinging balls that he called Ballrace – better known as Newton’s cradle. There were other versions, with wooden frames, but it was Loncraine’s elegant design inspired by the Bauhaus-period furniture of Marcel Breuer that became the iconic ‘executive toy’ fondly believed to be seen on the desk of every high-flying businessman in the 1970s. Packaged in a clear acetate box with Sir Isaac Newton’s Third Law of Motion printed on the lid (in in four languages) it had modern appeal and could be found at gift shops and interior design showrooms in the more fashionable parts of London.
“Gooddesign – and it must be Fun“
Increasing post-war prosperity brought with it a demand for stylish products like Ballrace as gifts to amuse grown-ups. By 1969, Loncraine was directing films for BBC Television’s Tomorrow’s World, when he invited Peter Broxton to join him and develop the toy business. Loncraine Broxton (LB) began as a trading partnership in the summer of 1969, around the time of the first Apollo Moon landing. With no working capital, funding relied on sales of Ballrace to provide much needed cash-flow. The partners’ maxim was – Good design – and it must be Fun!
Ballrace was assembled by one skilled worker in rooms above a ‘rags and metals’ shop near Chelsea Reach. Purchasing, assembly, quality control, sales and distribution were managed by one partner with a van. However, sales of Ballrace alone barely covered existing overheads. So, to boost cash-flow, witty gift ideas were created from readily available components, such as candles, ball-bearings, springs and magnets: candles in Andy Warhol-style soup cans; clear acrylic tubes with balls suspended in clear fluids; clear inflatable plastic cushions with a handful of floating feathers, and a satirical union jack that fluttered down a flagpole. All sold in trendy shops in Carnaby Street and the King’s Road, Chelsea.
LB’s initial design project was the Rockerbike – FUN 41 – a child’s rocking motorcycle made entirely from cardboard. A prototype was shown to interested parties in the UK and USA, but no one was willing to meet the up-front costs of large volume production. When one prospective US distributor expressed concern about perceived connotations with the Hell’s Angels, the exasperated partners gave up – moving swiftly on to launch their spring collection – a stool made from a giant steel spring, a spring table-lamp, and spring egg-cups – all chromium plated.
The launch of LB’s new executive game ‘Boardroom Boules’ was delayed by the advent of the ‘three-day week’ in early 1974. With coal miners picketing the power stations, electricity was rationed and the nation was plunged into darkness. Millions were laid off work and the demise of the executive class seemed inevitable – the decision was made to change the name of the new game from ‘Boardroom’ to ‘Indoor’ Boules.
The cost of tooling to injection-mould a clear plastic box for Indoor Boules was prohibitive. After much searching a suitable container was sourced in West Germany – the steel balls came from Russia, the wooden ‘pig’ from Lancashire and tape-measures were made in Croydon – all that was needed to re-create that holiday in the Dordogne on the comfort of your own Wilton or Axminster.
This astonishing writing instrument levitates permanently above its magnetic plinth. The ball-point tip being the only part touching the plinth the forces of friction are reduced to a minimum – given a twist between finger and thumb the pen will spin for some time. Mesmerising optical effects are produced by the embossed foil sleeve.
Below: a mock-up prototype for corporate clients – the name is illegible until pen is set spinning.
With chrome enjoying a style revival in the early 1970s, Ryman Conran Interiors devoted their Tottenham Court Road showroom to a ‘Chrome Christmas’ event. LB provided ‘chrome effect’ telephones, typewriters, pens, plastic fruit, flowers, and Coca-Cola bottles. The Coke bottles were the old style, with raised logo, becoming scarce and only found by sorting through crates of ’empties’ at cafes around central London. Mr Chow bought some to decorate his new restaurant in Queensway, and Beat author William Burroughs had one he photographed in his London apartment. Now a collectors’ item.
John Schlesinger, director of the Academy Award winning film Midnight Cowboy (1969) asked Loncraine Broxton to create sculptures and props for his new film Sunday Bloody Sunday starring Peter Finch and Glenda Jackson. They included a Richard Nixon jukebox, and a garden sculpture incorporating dozens of slender glass tubes pulsing with coloured fluids. For a night scene the Habitat showroom in Old Brompton Road featured LB spring stools together with perspex columns filled with chromed spheres moving in clear fluid.
With thanks to Michael Childers for permission to reproduce his photographs here.
Tumblers – LB’s state of the art fluid-technology – the hollow walls display an abundance of coloured shapes swirling with mouth-watering motion as you twist in the hand. Who cares if if the drink has run out!