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Back in the '60s, there was the 'Hop Rod'

Monday, May 28, 2001

By Byron Spice, Post-Gazette Science Editor

Improved energy storage, whether in the form of a spring or a bow, is just one way to make a pogo stick jump higher.

Another is to add more energy -- fossil fuel energy.

Gordon Spitzmesser, the owner of a tool and die shop in Elwood, Ind., built a gas-powered pogo stick by marrying the barrel of a grease gun with a piston liberated from an old lawnmower. Bouncing down on the stick would push the piston into the cylinder, compress the fuel and fire a sparkplug, launching the stick into the air.

Powered leaping inventions were not the sole province of U.S. inventors. Here a technician straps on gasoline-powered jumping shoes at Russia's Ufa Aviation Technical University in a demonstration last year. The shoes were touted as enabling a wearer to take 13-foot strides. (Ivan Yelizaryev, AP photo)

Spitzmesser patented his invention in 1960.

"It was a neat way to get around, if you like a lot of jarring and shaking," recalled his son Richard, now of Cibolo, Texas, and a college student at the time.

The height of the bounce depended on the rider's weight, he said, but the average middle school student could probably reach heights of 30 inches.

Chance Manufacturing of Wichita, Kan., an amusement ride manufacturer and inventor of the Zipper carnival ride, bought the rights from Spitzmesser and sold the gas-powered pogo sticks for a time.

"It really was a kick in the butt to ride this thing," recalled Edward Skakie of Oshawa, Ontario, who bought two of Chance's "Hop Rods" about 30 years ago. "You had not only the bang of the gas, but also the spring launching you in the air."

Skakie, 62, rode one of his Hop Rods for a little more than an hour before putting it back in its box for good. "I suffered mightily for it," he said, recalling how his back ached afterward.

More disconcerting, the gas-powered pogo stick was just as energetic if an off-balance user landed sideways. That caused some serious accidents and led to a ban on sales in the early '70s, he added.

Soviet aviation scientists used a similar approach in the late 1980s when they developed piston-driven, gas-powered boots to enable soldiers to take 13-foot strides and run at 25 miles an hour. The Soviet military never used them, but engineers at Aviation Technical University in Ufa, Russia, dusted off the plans and unveiled the boots last year, suggesting they could be marketed to "extreme sports" enthusiasts at $400 a pair.

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