SI Vault
Joe Bower
November 26, 1990
San Francisco dentist Tom Kuhn is a high priest of high-tech yo-yos as well
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November 26, 1990

Man With The World On A String

San Francisco dentist Tom Kuhn is a high priest of high-tech yo-yos as well

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On his best day, yo-yo legend Harvey Lowe can't sling more than six straight around-the-worlds. Even the world's top performer, Dale Myrberg, can't coax many more from his favorite yo-yo. But Tom Kuhn, a San Francisco dentist, can zip off 40 revolutions faster than you can say, "Yo!" In fact, Kuhn once threw 102 around-the-worlds and still had enough zip left to yank the whizzing spool back to his hand.

Kuhn, 47, who moonlights as a yo-yo maker, has a secret, though. It is his newest creation: the SB-2 (short for Silver Bullet 2), an aircraft-aluminum model equipped with a ball-bearing axle.

While it won't alter Newtonian physics, the SB-2 could throw the yo-yo world for a loop. You see, the SB-2 can spin at the end of the string—or, in yo-yo talk, sleep—for 90 seconds; conventional models can muster about 15 seconds. And nothing is more critical to competition players than stretching their spins, because that yields more time in which to shoot the moon, rock the baby and thread the needle.

"[SB-2] is a quantum leap in yo-yo technology," says Stuart Crump Jr., the editor of Yo-Yo Times, a bimonthly newsletter that is the sport's bible. "Tom Kuhn is on the cutting edge of high-tech yo-yos," adds Tommy Smothers, the comedian and yo-yo whiz who is a student of Kuhn's and a user of his yo-yos.

Some hail the SB-2's design as the yo-yo's biggest improvement since the slip loop, the revolutionary addition that let the yo-yo sleep at the end of a string. "There's nothing that I've seen that'll spin longer," says Crump, one of the first people to have toyed with the SB-2.

Kuhn's shiny, $75 model was introduced to the public this month in one of his mailings that feature various yo-yo models as well as yo-yo books and videos. It is just his latest yo-yo feat, not his first. Introduced to yo-yos at age eight, Kuhn claimed his first and only win as a 13-year-old in a Detroit neighborhood contest sponsored by the Duncan Toys Co., then and now the largest yo-yo maker. His prize was a pearlescent, rhinestone-encrusted yo-yo. "I remember throwing a sleeper in the drugstore parking lot and thinking how beautiful it looked when the sun hit the rhinestones," Kuhn recalls. "It is a moment frozen in my memory."

When Duncan introduced plastic yo-yos two years later, Kuhn put yo-yoing aside. "A plastic yo-yo doesn't have the feel of wood. It's artificial," says Kuhn. "I just lost interest. Plus, other things were becoming more interesting to me, like girls."

Kuhn didn't pick up a yo-yo again until 1976, when he was given a model made of rosewood. Its axle snapped that same day, but his interest was rekindled. After failing to salvage the gift, he decided to build the perfect yo-yo.

Some say the yo-yo, in existence since at least 450 B.C., is the perfect toy. It originated in ancient China or Greece, but its name means "come-come" in Tagalog, the language of the Philippines, where it was once used as a hunting weapon. Throughout history, the string was affixed to the axle and the yo-yo rode up and down the string; in the early 1900s the slip loop made its appearance.

Kuhn saw room for additional improvement. Six months after he started tinkering, he produced a varnished, eastern hard-rock maple yo-yo. Dubbed the No-Jive 3-In-1 Yo-Yo (SI, Dec. 12, 1982), its halves could be removed from the axle and reassembled into three configurations—face-to-face, back-to-back and piggyback—to accommodate different tricks.

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