Wednesday, December 1, 2010


Decoder rings were all the rage during the golden age of radio. DICK TRACY, CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT, and even LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE’S Decoder Brooch lent an air of participation and physicality to radio’s theatre of the mind.

So when HOVERBOY: AGENT OF DANGER! hit the airwaves in 1937, competition was stiff, and ratings were routinely low. Despite great villains such as BOLSHEVIK BEAR, PROFESSOR OPIUM and THE MASKED MACEDONIAN. The show’s sponsor, a lighting fixture manufacturer of the popular "Dinky's Winkies", threatened to pull out. For the 1938 season, Hoverboy creatrors Bob Stark and C. L. Nutt, came up with a marketing plan. Stark and Nuut, who didn’t yet hate each other’s guts, had a brainstorm. “Let’s do what everyone else does!”  Thus the Hoverboy decoder ring was born. But they took it further. While most radio shows offered some sort of mail-in premium, the producers of Hoverboy went one step further, promising lucky listeners some fabulous prizes if they could decode the message at the end of each show! Schwinn bikes, Top Flite baseball gloves, and ‘Killer Kiddie BB guns’ were all up for grabs.

Eager kids enthusiastically sent in $1.00 for a ring and started listening to the Hoverboy radio show! Or at least they enthusiastically started using the rings to decode the messages at the end of the show to win free stuff.  Evidence suggests few kids actually listened to the radio show itself.

Like on other radio series, the announcer intoned a series of numbers, kids wrote them down and used the ring to decode them into a coherent message. They would mail the secret message to the producers, with 50¢ to cover ‘postage’.

Unlike other radio shows, decoding was not simple.

German Enigma machine        ©Hitler 1936

On the 1937 ring, which I've only read about, there were five concentric sliding circles of numbers, symbols and letters.  The ring was based on an early variation of the Enigma Machine, developed in the 1930’s and used by the Nazi Military up until the end of the WW-2.

Small town boys with a decoder ring didn’t stand a chance.

The infamous 1940 Hoverboy Decoder Ring

My ring, from 1940, is noted for having absolutely no moving parts.  Around the ring are two concentric circles containing a standard number-letter cipher. Except that there are only 25 numbers for the 26 letters of the alphabet, so exactly what number corresponds to what letter gets a little fuzzy from V to Y. The engraving is also very small and light, making reading the corresponding numbers and letter very difficult without a magnifying glass. Unsubstantiated reports claim children suffered permanent damage due to eye strain.  One reason these rings are so valuable is that so many kids threw them away in frustration, or parents confiscated them to stop their children from crying.

No one can say for sure if there were any prizes handed out, but in this excerpt from RADIO'S GOLDEN YEARS fanzine in the 1970's, radio actress Donna Spritz confessed,

"Mr. Stark and Mr. Nutt were okay at first. But the radio producers were pretty horrible. Always late with checks and very lurid around me. I did what I had to do to keep my job. People don't know this, but besides being the female lead, I did the children's voices on the show as well. It's a common practice in radio, even today. Well, at the end of every Hoverboy show a child came on who has won a prize the week before for decoding the secret message on their pin or ring or whatever. Well, there was never any kids in the studio. Bobby, Larry, Timmy, Linda... they were all me.”

So besides the non-existent prizes, kids were also out 50¢ every time they wanted to enter. Since postage cost less than 10¢ a letter, someone made a tidy profit.

I have only seen 1 of the other 5 rings known to exist. I'm hoping to get the owner to send me a picture soon.

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