Adam Stoner

Sea Monkeys

Sea Monkeys are brine shrimp.

They’re tiny – about half a centimetre wide and about the same length as your small fingernail – but the magic comes from a state of suspended animation known as cryptobiosis.

The inventor, a chap named Harold von Braunhut.

He was trying to come up with some sort of pet that he could sell through the mail and he was at a pet store and he saw some brine shrimp that were in an aquarium or a bucket or something. But he thought that that might be the perfect pet because their eggs or cysts are dry and they don’t become activated, they don’t hatch until they’re wet.

This is bonkers, right? You can hatch a living animal from a packet that’s been sat on the shelf for months…

Harold packaged these eggs into kits. You get a plastic tank and several different packets.

Packet one is labeled as water purifier and it’s mostly salts. So you’re supposed to put that in, wait 24 hours, then you put in packet number two and packet number two is labeled instant live eggs and through the science you see Sea Monkeys hatch instantly before your eyes.

There’s a little more happening here than you might realise and it’s a bit of a sleight of hand.

Part of the marketing genius behind this is there’s actually a lot of eggs in packet number one as well they’re in both packets so by waiting that 24 hours after you put in packet number one the eggs it’s giving the eggs time to hatch and the little babies time to grow a tiny bit.

You think package one is just salt. It’s not. When you add packet two, which contains dye, you see what’s already hatched from packet one, giving the illusion of instant life.

It’s genius.

It’s also what’s now called cognitive priming, that is the deep cerebral desire we all have to see what we expect to see.

There was this huge lawsuit about licensing; Harold’s widow, supposedly held the Sea Monkey secret formula in a vault in Manhattan, there was an argument over who owned the company, and values in the tens of millions being thrown around

Harold von Braunhut was an entrepreneur but he was also a con artist.

His previous inventions include Invisible Goldfish and X-Ray Specs. He also had associations with white supremacy.

And this is really uncomfortable.

The marketing is genius. It’s also based on lies. The product has entertained millions of people over the world for nearly 70 years. It’s also made by a man who supplied firearms to the Ku Klux Klan.

I’m not sure how to reconcile those things, I don’t think you can. But they’re also kind of what the story is about: a dark history that you might not associate with a children’s toy.

Sea Monkeys pretty much went the same way that most crazes do, they fidget-spun out of the limelight.

But these creatures, the animals themselves, are fascinating (and entirely oblivious to the drama surrounding them).

Dried to this day, in packets on shelves across the world, waiting for some curious kid to return them to life. And that, I think, is the real magic.

31 Jul 2023

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