When I wrote ‘Mr. Fitter on YouTube and Facebook looks back on the past‘; a review of major technological milestones for our company, I was reminded that the entire balance and fitness industry has evolved immensely including well known products like the Bongo Board. Fitterfirst happens to own the trade name (as it applies to the exercise balancing device), which made researching the history of the Bongo Board that much more personal. I already knew that Stanley Washburn was the man, when it came to the Bongo Board, but I came across this interesting back ground story on Wikipedia by David Maisel.
The Bongo Board opened rocker-roller balance-board riding to people less nimble than circus performers by rigging a way to keep the board lined up with the roller so that the rider wouldn’t (or would rarely) be catapulted into the air and onto the floor by a sloppy lean that would slide or jerk the board off the roller as the roller scooted away. Because the Bongo Board’s design keeps it lined up with the roller, only a very sloppy lean, such as one by a beginner, or a very fast one by a daredevil would cause that catapulting and injury. By matching a rail on the board’s underside (a rail which ran the length of the board, centered on the board’s width) with a groove in the roller’s circumference, centered on its axis, the axis was kept parallel to the board’s width and the roller was prevented from moving away from the board in the direction of either end of its axis.
In the circus world, a rocker-roller balance board without the Bongo Board’s transverse (i.e., crosswise) guidance has long been used by acrobats and jugglers, who call it a “rolla bolla” (also known as a “rola bola,” a “rolo bolo” and a “roly boly” and sometimes with a hyphen or no space between the two words).
Stanley Washburn, Jr. (1908-2005), an executive at Pan American World Airways, was the inventor of the Bongo Board and the founder and co-owner of the company that produced it, Bongo Corporation, which existed from 1953 through 1980 or 1985, in New York City. As far as I have been able to find out, the Bongo Board was that company’s only product. It came in two sizes. The one in the Wikipedia photo was the slightly larger size.
Washburn got the idea for a rocker-roller balance board in 1942, when, as a pilot in the U.S. military’s Air Transport Command, he made a stop in the Gold Coast (the British colony in Africa that is now Ghana), where he saw children balancing on a plank atop a log or uprooted tree trunk. According to one report, he also saw children balancing on such materials in India when he flew there in the war.
It was probably no accident that an airline executive and World War II pilot would become the inventor of the first rolling balance board that was safe enough to ride. Someone with those two kinds of professional experience would be keenly aware of and interested in the precariousness and improvability of humans’ sense of balance. Balance problems of flyers are described in the 2007 book BALANCE: IN SEARCH OF THE LOST SENSE by Scott McCredie (pub. Little, Brown) in the “‘Ear Deaths’ and ‘Graveyard Spirals’” chapter. Almost all of that chapter can be read online in the May 2008 issue of Lost Magazine.
A Bongo Board appeared in the centerfold photo of the August 1967 issue of Playboy Magazine. The earliest known published mentions of the Bongo Board are the 200-word article “This Game Is Tough” in the October 25, 1953 issue of Parade Magazine (the syndicated supplement to Sunday newspapers) and the 350-word article “Bongo Board Causes Stir” in the November 1953 issue of Ski Magazine (published then in Norwich, Vermont and now in Boulder, Colorado). The photos in the Parade Magazine article seem to be from the set of the Garry Moore Show (the CBS Television variety show). One of them includes Washburn, who is seen showing the board to Moore. The photo in the Ski Magazine article also includes Washburn, who is seen timing a woman’s first ride.