When owner Ira Hassenfeld walked into the design room at Hasbro Toys in Providence in the summer of 1963, the first thing he announced was, “I want you to make a doll for boys.” The second thing was, “And I don’t want to hear the word doll when you design it!”
For the next several months, the “D” word was not uttered. The toy was always referred as a soldier, or a fighting man. One of the three men on the Hasbro design team was Sam Speers. The combined skills of these men ended up creating the world’s first action figure for boys, with the decidedly undoll- like name of GI Joe.
A year after he graduated from Rhode Island School of Design with a BFA in Industrial Design, Speers built a cottage in Westport, MA. Speers and his wife Arlene divided their time between their home in North Attleboro and their small cottage in Masquesatch Meadows. It was an easy drive from Westport to Providence.
The next few months would be an ultimate test of Speers ingenuity. “We knew that we could make equipment and accessories for the figure since it had been done successfully five years earlier by another company with the Barbie Doll,” Speers said. They knew that a market existed because boys had always played with soldiers, mostly with inanimate cast iron or lead figures 4 inches high.
The first big question was how could Sam’s design team join together the hands, arms, legs of an 11 1/2 inch tall action figure. Nails wouldn’t stay put, screws could be taken apart, a spring could be flexed out of shape.
“You don’t leave your work back at the office. You’ve got problem you want to solve, you’re always looking for a way to solve it, “ Speers said. “One Saturday, I was wandering into Grundy’s Hardware for a homeowner repair when I saw what’s called a ring-threaded screw, it has concentric rings that can be forced into something but cannot be twisted out easily. Bingo. By Monday morning Norman Jacques and Walter Hansen, the other men on my team, were using them to fasten the fighting man’s limbs together.”
The biggest problem in designing this soldier was that his arms, legs, and body had to support whatever equipment he was to use. He had to be able to maintain a stable pose when standing, lying down or kneeling with a weapon or other equipment they were inventing for him.
“After reviewing everything I’d ever seen in my life. it came to mind that underwear utilized a cotton elastic braid which was very strong yet flexible and could be used to assume various poses. I didn’t find that in Westport but I knew in my head that it would hold the soldier together.”
For the next six months, Speers and his design team felt like they were in a creative war themselves, as they used their imaginations and design wiles to meet an unrelenting deadline. By February 1964, GI Joe, an action figure with 21 moving parts, stormed into the Toy Fair in New York City to a hero’s welcome. Dubbed "GI Joe" by the practical woman who was making his clothing for Hasbro, he became the first boy’s action figure in the world.
GI Joe’s activities weren’t limited to combat. “One of my jobs was to create new adventures for him," story lines that would keep his fans returning to the stores for new outfits and gear.
“The annual Book Fair at the Westport Friend’s Meeting was where I found them. I’d thumb through old, curled-up copies of National Geographic and find inspiration for dozens of GI Joe exploits,” Speers said, and rattled off examples like "The Secret of the Mummy's Tomb," "The Capture of the Pygmy Gorilla," "White Tiger Hunt," and "The Eight Ropes of Danger," based on a story about an octopus!
One of the highlights of Speers career happened right in Westport Harbor in the early 1970s. “One of the adventures that I thought would be sensational was a GI Joe deep sea diver with what they called then a hard helmet. That toy had weighted boots on so he’d go to the bottom and if you blew into a little tube it would put air into his helmet he came back to the surface. One of the thrills of my life was when my wife and I boated past Boat Beach and saw a little boy and his mother leaning over the side of a boat and dropping the deep sea GI Joe into the water. It was something I thought I'd never see.”
Speers might not have believed that this action figure would still be protecting the motherland in the 21st century but on July 4th, 2004, he attended a fortieth anniversary GI Joe convention at Walt Disney World. The Hasbro Company commemorated the anniversary by reproducing the entire 1964 product line for a new generation of collectors and players.
Who knows? By the end of the decade, GI Joe might be headed into Deep Space.