By Janice Schulz
At the Archives & Rare Books Library we frequently get requests asking us to verify that a certain individual attended UC or one of its predecessor schools. Recently a call came in asking us to substantiate a claim found on the internet that Abe Bookman, creator of the Magic 8 Ball, was a graduate of the Ohio Mechanics Institute (OMI). Generally this is an easy task – we simply look in alumni directories, yearbooks or commencement brochures for the person – but Abe proved to be a bit more elusive than most. With no attendance dates to go by, we started pouring through all of the resources we have for OMI using his birth date and the Magic 8 Ball’s introduction as guides, but to no avail. After further research, the reason for his elusiveness began to become clearer – at some point around 1936, we believe he Anglicized his surname from Buchmann to Bookman. He seemed to use both names until around 1955, eventually dropping Buchmann and exclusively using Bookman. That research also uncovered some interesting details about his life.
Abe Buchmann was a first-generation American born of Russian Jewish immigrants who came to the United States around 1895. On June 20, 1897, Samuel Buchmann married Dora Schwartz and Abraham was born the following May. Samuel had a daughter, Cecelia, from a previous marriage and he and Dora had two more children together. The Buchmanns became United States citizens in 1903. Samuel supported his growing family as a junk dealer.
Abe entered the McMicken College of Liberal Arts at the University of Cincinnati in 1916 and attended for one year. When Samuel died of stomach cancer on November 25, 1917, Dora was left with three children still at home, Abraham, Margaret (16), and Maurice (13). The junk business, however, proved to be lucrative enough and Samuel was able to leave each of his children $200.00 at his death. Nonetheless, it was left to Abe, then 20 years old to care for his mother and two younger siblings. Abe left UC following his father’s death and took a job as a soapmaker. After a couple of years he was able to continue his education and attended the Ohio Mechanics Institute evening school from 1919 to 1921, beginning in the automobile ignition program and moving into the chemistry program. After leaving OMI he worked as a repairman and then a salesman before becoming manager at Bookman Furniture in 1929. This may be where he found his assumed name.
Now what about that Magic 8 Ball? The story goes that a man named Alfred Carter came up with the idea after seeing his mother, a Cincinnati psychic, using a similar gadget with her clients. Indeed, Alfred Carter is credited with the original design, which was not for a ball at all, but for a cylindrical amusement device with a die suspended in viscous liquid. When Carter filed a patent application for his invention in 1944, he assigned half of the rights to Buchmann and one quarter each to Max Levinson (Buchmann’s brother-in-law), and Julius Mintz. Buchmann and Carter created Alabe Crafts, Inc. in 1946 to produce and distribute their invention, which they called the Syco-Seer, and a later version called the Syco-Slate. Al Carter died before the product finally got to market, but Buchmann carried on. The idea to use the form of a pool ball came from a 1950 advertising scheme by Illinois firm Brunswick Billiards, which worked with Alabe to create a unique promotional item. At that time, the toy took on the shape of the now-familiar 8 ball. In 1964 a patent was issued to Abe C. Bookman for a “liquid filled die agitator” that looks very much like the Magic 8 Ball.
In 1970 Alabe Crafts, Inc. was still producing the Magic 8 Ball and distributing it through an agreement with the Ideal Toy Company. Abe Bookman was semi-retired, but still working as a research consultant for the company. In 1987 Tyco Toys Inc. purchased the rights to produce the Magic 8 Ball. Mattel Inc. purchased Tyco in 1997 and is the current manufacturer. Abe Bookman passed away at the age of 95 on August 28, 1993, but his Magic 8 Ball is still going strong. It is produced in many different variations, including the pink “Magic Date Ball.” It has its own Facebook page (3,328 people like it) and you can get a Magic 8 Ball app for your Android.
While we are pretty confident that Abe Buchmann of OMI is indeed Abe Bookman of Magic 8 Ball fame, we welcome any additional information the public can provide on this UC/OMI/Cincinnati legacy.