Whirling through the world of propeller beanies

From geek chic to gang style, the tale of this techie lid gives those behind it their props.

While business isn't bad, Stacy Samuels can't help longing for the boom days of the early '90s. If your memory is fuzzy, that was the time of the last big propeller beanie craze, most notably in Baltimore, where the multicolored hats morphed from being geek chic to a must-have item for the city's youths.

While business isn't bad, Stacy Samuels can't help longing for the boom days of the early '90s.

If your memory is fuzzy, that was the time of the last big propeller beanie craze, most notably in Baltimore, where the multicolored hats morphed from being geek chic to a must-have item for the city's youths. In one incident that grabbed national headlines, police arrested a 10-year-old boy for holding up a 9-year-old at gunpoint to relieve him of his rainbow-hued hat.

"Everyone was buying them, kids, gang members, church-goers," says Samuels, who serves as "chief flight commander" at Interstellar Propeller, a propeller beanie maker in Berkeley, Calif.

While such beanies might not exactly be in vogue these days, they remain an enduring symbol of all things techie. You don't have to look into too many cubicles at many high-tech companies to spot a propeller beanie of one kind or another. Meanwhile, the term "propellerhead" still says scientist or engineer to most people, and has been incorporated into the names of everything from software companies to alternative music bands.

Interstellar Propeller, which employs from five to 10 people - depending on the season - claims to be the leading maker of these lids, having spun out 1.5 million over 27 years. The company, which says it is "changing the way America flies," sells its hats through a slew of outlets, from CompUSA to theme parks to science museums to shopping-mall carts to, of course, high-tech companies. Interstellar awarded Bill Gates a golden propellered hat in the mid-1990s, and more recently, basketball stars Shaquille O'Neal and Hakeem Olajuwon sported the twirly caps in a TV ad Spike Lee produced for a fast food restaurant.

The company got its start in 1976 shortly after Samuels concocted a propeller beanie as a birthday gift for Wavy Gravy, who made a name for himself in the 1960s as a political and social activist, and more recently as the namesake for a discontinued Ben & Jerry's ice cream flavor.

"People really reacted to the hat, so I got into the business of making and selling them," says Samuels, who is hard to miss at Oakland A's baseball games and San Francisco 49ers football games, what with his long beard, superhero cape, banjo and propeller beanie.

"When the software industry came along, that's when I knew I was living right," he says.

Science fiction writer Ray Faraday Nelson is said to have created the propeller beanie in 1947 at a small science fiction convention in Cadillac, Mich., and homemade versions began popping up among the sci-fi crowd, fueled in part by cartoons Nelson crafted that included propeller beanie-wearing characters.

"Computer fans, as the Internet developed, were often also science fiction fans, so they carried the practice of wearing this headgear over into this new domain, making it part of so-called geek culture," Nelson says.

Among the sci-fi fans enamored with the early propeller beanie images was a young Bob Clampett, who went on to become a pioneer in American animation, designing Porky Pig and other famous characters. After a successful career at Warner Bros., Clampett struck out on his own in the 1940s and created a TV puppet show called "Time for Beany" that featured the adventures of a seasick sea monster named Cecil and his propeller-hat-wearing buddy, Beany. The Emmy-award-winning puppet show morphed into a popular cartoon in the early 1960s and helped popularize the propeller beanie among children. Show sponsor Mattel began selling a now-collectible toy called the Beany Copter.

The propeller beanie, which typically sells for about $12, has been refined over the years. Jerome Lemelson, who held more than 550 patents, was awarded his first patent in 1953 for a variation of the propeller beanie that enabled the wearer to blow through a tube to make an item atop the hat spin or move. Models today include brimmed (the current hot style, according to Samuels) and traditional brimless, those with glow-in-the-dark propellers as well as those for skiers and cyclists.

Among current beanie propeller buyers is Sherpa Software, a maker of e-mail and data management software that will hand out about a thousand beanies sporting its logo this year, typically at trade shows such as Lotusphere and Microsoft's Tech Ed. Employees and customers have taken to the hats, collecting different models issued yearly.

"At one point [at Tech Ed] a gentleman got down on his hands and knees and said, 'Just tell me what I have to do to get one of those hats,'" says Cathy Capizzi, Sherpa's manager of marketing services.

"They're always a big hit at the cocktail parties," she adds.

As for propeller beanie creator Nelson, he says the enduring popularity of the hats continues to amaze him.

"Centuries after all my writings have been forgotten, in some far corner of the galaxy, a beanie copter will still be spinning," he writes on his Web site.

Got an idea for A Wider Net story? An offbeat technology industry-related topic? A fascinating personality we should profile? Contact Executive News Editor Bob Brown at bbrown@nww.com

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