Today in Tedium: The nature of invention and innovation has been on my mind the past few weeks. Specifically, why we attribute some innovations to particular individuals but not others. Henry Ford didn’t invent the assembly line but it’s credited as one of the innovations that made his automobile company one of the most profitable. A.C. Gilbert didn’t really invent the Erector Set but its success and his charisma helped him become one of the largest toy manufacturers in the world. Plenty of business tycoons find success with products they didn’t invent, or even significantly innovate in a meaningful way. Elon Musk bought his way into Tesla Motors, he wasn’t its founder and, of course, the electric car was invented some 80 years before his birth. But perhaps the simplest way to understand why certain business leaders get credit over others is to look at an arcade game popular in colder climates or any place where hockey fans congregate. Today’s Tedium is looking at bubble hockey and the lawyer-turned-game-maker that became its chief champion—and why it might matter to American patent law in coming years. — Andrew @ Tedium
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The estimated number of Canadian homes that had a table hockey game by the 1950s. Most of these games were made by Munroe Toys, a company founded by the inventor of table hockey. But overwhelming popularity spawned imitators and homages that would eventually dominate the market.
A brief history of table-top hockey-themed games
Bubble hockey as a game is a subset of a broader category of table hockey games that can trace their lineage to inventor Donald H. Munroe in 1932. As you might have guessed, he was Canadian.
Hockey as a sport was still relatively new at the time with modern game developing in Canada in the 1870s. Professional leagues followed in the 1880s so the sport was barely 50 years old when Munroe faced a common problem of the working class during the Great Depression. He couldn’t afford to buy his kids Christmas gifts.
(For comparison, the Pop-A-Shot, which claims to be the first arcade basketball game, wasn’t introduced until 1981. James Neismith, also a Canadian, invented the game in 1891. Professional basketball leagues would take longer to develop than hockey as well.)
Being a rather industrious fellow in the face limited means, Munroe used household items, like “clothes pins, wire hangers, [and] clock springs” to make a tabletop hockey game that he would later describe in his U.S. patent as “a novel and amusing parlour game simulative of hockey, and calling for the exercise of skill and judgement on the part of the players in order to score against each other.”
One key difference between the first table hockey game and many of its successors was the use of a marble or ball bearing in place of a puck. Monroe made a few more games by hand and sold them at a Canadian department store on consignment. There’s a neat, but very apocryphal, story that after delivering the first order, they sold out before he returned home. Needless to say, Munroe’s game was very popular but limited to Canada. An American manufacturer attempted to produce the game under a license but the venture proved unsuccessful. Sales of the Monroe table hockey game were initially limited to department stores and mail order catalogs with a price generally around $5 though the exact amount varied in the early years.
For the first 20 years or so, Munroe enjoyed limited competition. This ended in 1954 when the Eagle Toy Company of Montreal introduced their own table hockey game that was endorsed by the Montreal Canadiens, one of the most storied franchises in the National Hockey League. The Eagle version featured colored tin cutouts that more accurately resembled hockey players. The metal, white painted playing surface also more accurately resembled an ice rink where as the Munroe version was unpainted wood. The Eagle Toys version was a fantastic and immediate success, marking the beginning of the end for Monroe Toys.
By 1968, Monroe sold the company to a Buffalo-based aeronautics firm that decided to open a toy division for reasons likely related to asset manipulation. Monroe Toys went into receivership after its new owners defaulted on a loan. And that was that.
But a lawyer in Buffalo, unaffiliated with Munroe Toys’ new owners, had played table hockey in college and realized an untapped potential.
The number of bubble hockey tables sold by Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) in the first year of sales in 1982. By 1993 the company started selling the product under the brand name Super Chexx, which is still used today. These bubble hockey tables would find their way into bars and arcades across the country, and eventually the world. And the man responsible for their success never thought it would be his life’s work.
A Bud Light ad based around bubble hockey.
Making an arcade game more like the real game
Modern bubble hockey was first developed in the late 1970s by inventor David M. Barcelou. Bubble hockey very obviously draws on Monroe’s table hockey but with a few noticeable differences that made the creation eligible for its own patent. (More on that later.)
At some point in the early 1980s, Barcelou brought on board a couple of partners to create a company to develop his new version of table hockey. The domed appearance gave the product a distinct look that also pulled double duty as a safety device. Barecelou and company went further and replaced the metal ball most common in table hockey then with a plastic puck. New advances in electronics allowed them to add sound effects like booing or cheering crowds, organ music common to pro games, and a digital scoreboard. How many of these features were designed by Barcelou and what was added later is uncertain. We do know that Barcelou left the company, called Innovative Concepts in Entertainment (ICE) by the time the then branded Chexx bubble hockey hit the market. And one of the game’s more distinctive features is very much the creation of the new partners: Ralph Coppola and Jack Willert.
In 1980, the U.S. men’s Olympic ice hockey teams stunned the world by defeating the Soviet Union en route to a gold medal. It’s pretty difficult to overstate the importance of this moment in early 80s American pop culture. The closing play-by-by from the game’s announcer Al Michaels, “Do you believe in miracles?” would go on to be one of the most iconic lines in all American sports. It would also provide the title to the inevitable movie made about the game, Miracle, starring Kurt Russell. For a couple of lawyers turned toy makers trying to reinvent table hockey, it also offered a fantastic branding opportunity. The plastic figures encased in a transparent Lexan dome were fashioned to represent the U.S. and Soviet teams. The real brilliance was that no license or permission was needed. For good measure, they also included a digital version of the U.S. national anthem.
More than 5,000 Chexx units sold in its first year. The company enjoyed early success as part of the arcade boom and tried to capitalize on their early success by adapting the game to other sports, like a soccer themed game called Kixx that also did fairly well. Despite the success, the company was not immune to the arcade bust of 1983 when the industry as a whole was shrank by some 97 percent. Somehow, ICE survived the contraction but the experience still shaped the company profoundly.
“It’s scary when you only make a few games. I like making a lot of different ones. At some point in the development of the company, I decided to become a ‘one stop supplier’ offering different types of things like sports games, redemption machines, kiddie products … all kinds of things,” Coppola told a toy trade magazine in 2003. But Chexx, renamed Super Chexx by the mid-1990s remained the company’s core product, and Coppola’s reason for joining ICE in the first place, explaining that he joined the company. A trained lawyer and accountant, Coppola had worked at two other Buffalo-area companies as an executive before going to ICE. It would be where he worked for the rest of his life.
ICE would go on to develop and release hundreds of games over the years, while innovating license deals with the NHL and adapting existing games into arcade formats, like the board game Hungry, Hungry, Hippos or the mobile game Angry Birds. Their games would end up in places like Chuck-E-Cheese and Dave & Buster’s but they also found places in the homes of dedicated sports fans. I do mean dedicated as a brand-new Super Chexx machine cost about $2,500 in 2003. The updated versions today, with LCD “Jumbotron” capable of simulated replays, among other features, cost a good bit more.
Ralph Coppola died in 2018 but not before giving a final interview to The Buffalo News in February of that year. He mainly talked business, noting his company was the largest American manufacturer of coin operated games and estimating that at least 90 percent of their revenue came directly from consumers who have his games in their homes. But one of the more touching moments in this article came from his son, Joe, who had become a vice president at ICE. When asked who wins whenever they play bubble hockey, Joe replied, “He used to beat me but now I kick his butt. You can quote me on that.”
As for (Super) Chexx’s original inventor, David Barcelou would continue to create, including a professional race car simulator and “a prototype for a web-enabled ATM that provided services over the Internet”. The latter innovation would go on to be the subject of numerous patent lawsuits between Barcelou and financial institutions over, among other things, his patent, licensing fees, the rights of small scale inventors, and whether being called a “patent troll” can be considered defamatory. The case is a doozy and made its way to the New Hampshire Supreme Court. Though a 2019 decision didn’t go his way, the case could make its way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But at time of publication, courts have ruled that calling David Barcelou a “patent troll” isn’t defamatory.
Still, the game Barcelou designed has been an unquestionable success, even if some of bubble hockey’s most distinctive elements came after his involvement. In The Buffalo News article titled “The cult appeal of Bubble Hockey“, Ralph Coppola conceded that much of the game’s success relied on its initial design, stating “The game today is remarkably similar to the original game from 1982.”
Who deserves credit for the long-term success of a product? The inventor or the businessman who developed the idea into profitability? If you relied solely on surface level search results for “the inventor of bubble hockey”, the answer would be clear. David Barcelou is almost an afterthought in the story of bubble hockey, though his Twitter bio proudly and correctly notes his status as its inventor. But the guy who took bubble hockey to beloved cult status was a lawyer who just liked the game and saw its appeal.
This distinction might seem somewhat, I don’t know, sentimental? But in reality, it’s vitally important to patent law in the coming years. One of the most complete overviews of his ATM patent lawsuit, written with an obvious bias to Barcelou, notes his case was almost tailor made to address issues that concerned Justice Clarence Thomas in a separate case that made its way to the Supreme Court, eBay v. MercExchange (2006). In his opinion, Thomas wrote, “self-made inventors might reasonably prefer to license their patents, rather than undertake efforts to secure the financing necessary to bring their works to market themselves.”
Barcelou tried to do this with ATMs and likely did something similar with bubble hockey. He did make honest attempts to develop both products and bring them to market. When he realized the difficulty in doing so, especially with financing, he changed tack. It doesn’t look like he filed lawsuits against ICE or Ralph Coppola. On whatever terms he left the company, it seems to have sufficed.
The story behind the bubble hockey guy’s scheme to dominate web-based ATMs is worth a deep dive. But that story is still waiting for its conclusion. Barcelou is alive and might want to fight for his 29 patents on ATMs. He might not. He has yet to respond to requests for comment made via his Twitter account.
The distinction between inventor/patent holder and product developer seems primed for an increasingly complicated discussion in patent law. And there’s a better than good chance that bubble hockey finds its way into the footnotes of case law.