Although the yo-yo is an undeniably ancient toy there is no proof that it is the second oldest toy as claimed. However, very few records remain about its origins due to the fact people in the past have not considered yo-yos worth writing about.
The origin of the yo-yo is uncertain, but it was most likely developed in China. However, others would argue it was first used in Greece and still others would argue it was neither used in China nor Greece.
A popular yo-yo myth is the claim that is it an old Filipino weapon. The story describes a hunter with a large rock acting as a heavy yo-yo waiting for something to pass below, usually game and other small animals. At the correct time the yo-yo would be thrown at the creature being hunted. If the hunter missed he/she would get another opportunity. Physics of the yo-yo make the story highly unlikely, because a lot of the energy of a throw is lost as the yo-yo descends and if the rock hit anything it would not have enough energy to return. There is no documented evidence for this story. Although the yo-yo has been in the Philippines for hundreds of years as a popular toy, this story seems to have been made up, and became well known due to its retelling by Duncan yo-yo demonstrators in the 1930s. Although untrue, this story has been repeated so much it has become a legend.....
1000 BC - Chinese origins
Some historians believe the yo-yo originated in China at approximately 1000 BC. Although there are no formal records of the yo-yo, there is proof that the diabolo or 'chinese yoyo' was developed in China which has much in common.
Some records claim that the word 'yo-yo' came from the word come-come in Tagalog, a Philippino language. This is not correct, as the tagalog word for come is "halika". Some linguistic experts say that the name 'yo-yo' is Oriental in origin, supporting the theory that China was the birthplace of the yo-yo.
500 BC - Greek yo-yos
The first historical document featuring a yo-yo-like device was in Greece dated to 500 BC, and so some historians argue that the Greeks invented the yo-yo. These feature Greek discs which are arguably similar to a yo-yo which can be seen in Greek museums, such as the museum of Athens. Some historians argue that these were used for spools for thread or hanging drapes due to the fact the discs were ceramic which could break during play. There is however a Greek vase with what appears to be a boy playing with a yo-yo that may support the use of these discs as play.
1700s AD - Europe
Yo-yos became very popular in Europe in the late 18th century, having probably arrived there via India. It enjoyed popularity with the French nobility, with many famous people having used them. It is worth noting that the yo-yoers in this time period are recorded as being adults, who referred the yo-yo as a 'Bandalore' or a 'Quiz'.
1860s AD - United States
A patent in 1866 by James L. Haven and Charles Hettrick showed a new way of making a yo-yo using a central rivet to hold the two halves together, enabling the first metal yo-yos to be created. This patent demonstrates that there were yo-yos in the USA before this but referred to as 'Bandelores'. In 1867 Charles Kirchhof (a German immigrant living in the USA) patented and manufactured a yo-yo-like toy that he referred to as a "return-wheel", although he did not manage to sell a great number.
1910s AD - United States
In 1916 an article appears in the Scientific American Supplement with the title of "Philippino toys" which showed how to make a yo-yo. This was the first documented reference in the USA that used the term yo-yo.
1920s AD - United States - Pedro Flores
In 1928 Pedro Flores immigrated from the Philippines to the USA and started selling yo-yos under the name "yo-yos", the name used in the Philippines. He called his business the Yo-yo Manufacturing Company which operated in Santa Barbara. Pedro trademarked the term 'yo-yo' and refined the design of the yo-yo by looping the string around the axle instead of tying it as it was done previously. In doing this he introduced the fundamental yo-yo trick, the sleeper. Pedro Flores printed "patent applied" and "patent pending" on many of his yo-yos, despite him not possessing any patent on his products, presumably to discourage other toy manufacturers from producing yo-yos.
Due to the number of new possibilities for tricks Pedro also set up competitions to demonstrate the new tricks that could be done. However, his competitions were quite different from modern yo-yo competitions, as the competitions were more about endurance than trick complexity. The winner was the yo-yoer who could keep the yo-yo moving up and down without missing. This resulted in some competitions lasting a very long time with two experienced yo-yoers not giving up, resulting in the winner being selected by drawing straws. These competitions also featured contests of who could throw their yo-yo the furthest with it returning fully and who could do the greatest number of perfect spins during five minutes.
1930s AD - United States - Duncan
In about 1930 Donald F. Duncan bought out Flores and so obtained the rights to the trademark "yo-yo". The precise date is uncertain but the "Yo-Yo" trademark was transferred in 1932. Other yo-yo companies during this period had to use terms such as 'return tops', 'whirl-a-gigs' or 'twirlers'. Duncan quickly acquired the largest share of the yo-yo market, with 85% of all yo-yos sold in this period being produced by Duncan.
1960s - United States - Yo-yo term loses trademark
In 1965 Duncan got into a legal battle over the use of the term 'yo-yo' with Royal, resulting in the court ruling that the term had become generic and so could be not trademarked. As a result of the cost of fighting the lawsuit as well as an expensive investment in the means to produce plastic yo-yos, Duncan became bankrupt and its assets were sold, including its products and goodwill to Flambeau Plastics Company which now produces Duncan yo-yos, and equipment to Strombecker Toys which produced yo-yos under the Medalist name for a number of years.
1980s - Technological innovations
In 1980 Mike Caffrey patented an auto return mechanism for a yo-yo that worked by using an internal clutch. The first yo-yo based on this mechanism was the Yomega Brain in 1984. There is some debate in the industry as to whether or not Caffrey actually invented the mechanism himself, or simply assumed control over the future of the mechanism. At the time of writing, no concrete evidence has been presented to substantiate the claim that Caffrey did not invent the mechanism although the controversy does merit mention.
In 1984 the first ball bearing yo-yo was produced by Svenska Kullagerfabriken (SKF) in an SKF promotion, marking the beginning of a huge change to yo-yo design. However, the effect of this innovation would not be appreciated for about 10 years.
On the 12th of April 1985 a yellow plastic Duncan Imperial became the first yo-yo in space in a series of experiments called "Toys in Space" where various toys were tested to see how weightlessness affects them.