Much has been said of how the Internet has made the world smaller and more connected. So often in fact, it has now become cliche to comment on it at all. But occasionally one gets reminded of it in such a strong way, you can’t help but shake your head in disbelief …and just a touch of wonder.
Let’s go back to 1980. There’s a small boy, nine years old, sitting on the floor of his family’s living room staring with quiet intensity at what’s before him. We notice he’s small for his age, both in height and in weight (not quite at the point where he disappears if he turns sideways, but it’s a near thing). He has large blue eyes, a mop of dark blonde hair, and a head that is quite a bit larger than the rest of him. He’s been sitting where he is for about two hours, quietly doing what makes him happiest — building.
He has a Millennium Falcon and a X-Wing nearby, along with the requisite action figures. But he’s not playing with those right now. Instead he’s building an Imperial prison. Then he’s building a Rebel base. Now it’s another spacecraft, but one never dreamed of by the masters of model building and practical effects employed by George Lucas. This isn’t LEGO, ruled by right angles or poor stepped approximations of diagonals. This is something infinitely more flexible. It’s a construction set called “Ramagon” and it inspired that young boy like no other toy before or since.
It also doesn’t exist anymore. Out of production for years now, I had even forgotten the name of it for awhile.
As you might guess, that boy was me, and that Ramagon construction set was, without a doubt, my favorite toy ever. It had a unique hub and strut building system that allowed you to make beautiful and strange creations that not only were large, but looked like the very definition of “the future,” circa 1979. While you could still make right angles, you could actually make connections in twenty-six separate directions off a single piece. While the structures you built looked and felt lightweight, they were substantial and sturdy.
It was not only a fascinating toy to build with just for the sake of building, it was the perfect way to build things that you could use with other toys and action figures. With triangular and square panels, you could create platforms and give your creations heft and solidity. Without the panels you could create airy, skeletal constructions that looked very similar to the plans for a space station that NASA had been planning at the time. I built elaborate worlds for my Star Wars toys. I built towers taller than I was. But the most fun I had was just building really complex geometrical shapes and seeing what I could do with them.
I got older of course, and my Ramagon set eventually disappeared – probably in some charity donation. But I played with that set for a good six or seven years. Looking back later I realized that it hadn’t been just a toy used for entertainment, but something that helped me learn problem-solving and spatial visualization. I learned how to break big problems down into smaller pieces. I learned to balance having a plan with spontaneity and imagination. And while I love LEGO too, just connecting one brick to another isn’t very exciting – the building process with LEGO felt like a grind, the focus being on what you were building more than how you built it. Ramagon on the other hand opened up a whole world of possibility — not only allowing you to think about making connections in all directions, but encouraging it.
Flashing forward a number of years, and I now had two children of my own and I wanted to give my kids the same toy I’d had and more importantly the same experience I’d had. The first hurdle was one I’m ashamed to admit: while the toy had stayed fresh in my memories, the name of it was something I’d forgotten decades and decades ago. I did a lot of web searches for “1980s construction toy” and looked at a lot of pictures. I even searched for “1970s construction toy” as, with a child’s self-centeredness, I had no idea how long it had existed before I got mine.
Finally I had my eureka moment and found references and pictures on some sites that listed older toys. It was… Ramagon. Honestly, how I forgot a name like that I’ll never know. And to be fair, the Ramagon pieces were never emblazoned with a brand name the same way way LEGO pieces are.
Well, now I had a name but my jubilation was short lived. Turns out that by the time my kids were old enough to play with them and I went looking for them, they had been discontinued. I was crushed. As a parent, we all tend to want our children to be introduced to the things we loved best from our own childhoods and it looked like I wasn’t going to be able to do that. This was especially discouraging as I thought that Ramagon was the ultimate building toy that could be enjoyed by both my son and my daughter. Especially as both of them have tons of LEGO, and the later Ramagon sets had added panels that allowed kids to integrate their creations with LEGO bricks. I knew they’d love the possibilities it represented. It was frustrating knowing the perfect toy existed at one point but now was effectively gone.
I’d occasionally look for people selling Ramagon sets and would find some outrageously priced sets on eBay, sigh dramatically, and go about my business. My kids continued to get more and more LEGO sets and other construction toys and I continued to comment “Those are cool, but back in my day, I had the perfect building set…” They would roll their eyes and go back to what they were doing.
In the second half of last year I started wondering about where Ramagon came from. Who had invented it? It’s funny – so many commercial toys are completely divorced in the public mind from the person who invented them. Big toy companies don’t have much interest in promoting creative talent the same way tech companies do (obvious break-out hits like Rubik’s Cube being the exception). But I had a feeling that it would be possible to identify a single individual as the inventor – the set, its history, and everything I’d found out so far made me feel like this was someone’s passion, not the result of corporate focus groups and demographic targeting.
I’d already learned that it was never a toy in the same league as LEGO or Erector (or the later K’NEX) in terms of popularity and I would get met with blank stares and shrugs whenever I told people about it. After a consulting job that had me researching various patents, I decided to try looking through registered patents to see if I could find the person who had created, in essence, some of the happiest moments of my childhood.
Thanks to the Internet and specifically Google, searching patents is much easier than it used to be. That said, trying to find a patent without knowing the inventor or even the company that originally manufactured it (I knew the license for the toys changed hands over the years), is very difficult. Especially as the Ramagon name itself likely wasn’t even going to be mentioned in the patent (though later patents for similar toys did mention the toy by name). After much searching and looking at crazy toy designs (most of which were probably never sold anywhere) I found one: U.S. Patent 4129975 A. Inventor: Richard J. Gabriel.
So Mr. Gabriel invented the toy I still thought about all these years later. My question was answered, but I didn’t know what to do with that information. However, as I sometimes do, I drafted a letter in my head, thanking Mr. Gabriel for having created something that meant so much to a quiet, shy kid who found a way to express himself by building what he saw in his imagination. I was sure it was a letter that would never be sent. How could I even find him to send it? Would he even care? Was he even still alive?
And once again we come back to the point I made at the beginning – the world is smaller than it used to be. I grew up at the end of the era of three TV networks and rotary phones, and while I’m frequently an early adopter of new technologies, I can’t say that my thinking isn’t a little colored by a worldview now several decades out of date.
I went ahead and searched using Mr. Gabriel’s name and the word “Ramagon.” I found quite a few hits, mostly the meta cruft that is often associated with business listings. Lots of information, but none of it especially useful. I paged through more results, and finally… unbelievably… I found not just a website, but his website. Fittingly, he’s been an architect for more than 25 years, and there on his website was his email address.
I typed out basically what I’d already drafted in my head and sent him an email, not really expecting anything, but just wanting more than anything to say “Thank you.” That same day I received a reply from his wife Ann letting me know he’d get back to me in a couple of days. I was astounded.
Richard (and his wife Ann) wrote back and thus began a correspondence we’ve sporadically maintained in the midst of busy schedules. Richard and Ann have led fascinating lives, and I’ve loved hearing about what they’ve done and what they have planned. I even managed to provide a little help to them involving web design and online marketing. It was literally the least I could do in return for what I’d already received from Richard. I consider myself lucky to now count Richard and Ann as friends.
This had all started with the itch of unsatisfied nostalgia. I had gone looking for an old toy, and by extension, my childhood. I wanted to find a way to express appreciation for something that gave me so much joy as a child. I found so much more than that.
I found a link to my past that gave me a new perspective. I found new friends it felt like I had known for years. And thanks to the unbelievable generosity of Richard and Ann, I found something else too. In the mail this week, I received the following:
Richard had, at my request, even signed the boxes for me. And with that, I was finally able to pass along to my children that idolized toy from my childhood. And along with it, a connection to a world that is both smaller and more amazing than the world I lived in some thirty-five years ago.
From the moment I pulled the sets out of the box they were shipped in, my kids’ eyes lit up. There were appreciative oohs and ahhs from both of them. My oldest, who just turned 13 and who has begun to have a pretty good idea of the value of such things, commented “It almost seems a shame to open them up.” I answered back “It would be a bigger shame not to.” And with that, we set about building.
I may have bogarted the toys a bit at the beginning. The pieces felt comfortably familiar in my hands. The click as pieces came together providing the same satisfying completeness that it had so many years ago. We built a spaceship. We built a Martian base. We built.
This isn’t a story about nostalgia, or toys, or being an uber geek about something (though it obviously includes all those things). For me, this experience has been about the sort of connections possible in the small, connected world we live in, and the connections that exist within ourselves. How those connections can go off at any angle but that together, they can make something beautiful, strange, and the very definition of “the future.” It’s been about how when things click together just right, it provides a sense of completion.
And I hope for Richard that this is a story about how if you build with passion and creativity, as he did, what you built will last far longer than you could have dreamed.
I want to once again express my heartfelt thanks and deepest appreciation to Richard and Ann. Nine times out of ten, or maybe even ninety-nine times out of a hundred, if someone in a similar situation had received my email, assuming they even read it, they’d likely just smile and move on. I think it says something that they didn’t. Maybe with all their experiences across the globe, they realize that while it may be a small world, it’s full of large stories and the greatest fun comes either from making your own or from being a part of as many of them as you can.