Dances with Sea Monkeys: The Highly Unlikely Life and Times of Harold Von Braunhut.
Sea Monkeys: First Encounters.
Like almost everyone above a certain age, my first encounter with Sea Monkeys was in the back pages of imported American comics (unless you’re an American, then it’s just comics, obviously). We lived in a small village in East Sussex at the time, so I’m really not sure how the comics made their way across the Atlantic to our house, but the fact that they did, and the slight differences in spelling, and the genuinely unbelievable adverts in the back rendered them supremely exotic to my young mind. There were so many incredible things you could get for $1. X-ray specs, of course, Vibro-Matic walkie talkies, a Bag Full of Laughs and, if you were a 97 lb weakling, a Charles Atlas course which would stop people from kicking sand in your face on the beach.
Sea Monkeys. What you thought you were getting.
Because I had (and have) an obsession with miniature worlds, the advertisement that repeatedly caught my eye was for Sea Monkeys. It depicted a smiling Sea Monkey family posing in front of a subaqueous castle – there was Father Sea Monkey, two children Sea Monkeys, and a reclining Mother Sea Monkey, showing off her rather shapely legs. All of them wore crowns – I wasn’t sure why – perhaps you had to if you lived in a castle.
It wasn’t the only puzzling thing about the advertisement – these things looked like people. The text said they can even be trained. They did tricks and stunts. Stunts? For a dollar, anyone could buy a humanoid family and train them to do tricks and stunts? This would be, as the advert said, a bowl full of happiness. Either the world was a somewhat different place to what I had imagined, or this advertisement wasn’t telling the entire truth. Either way, it had worked – I desperately wanted to find out. But first I had to send a dollar to America. I had no idea how to do that – or even if it could be done. I didn’t know where I could get $1 for starters. This was the early 70s. To get people to send you things, you had to actually, physically, send them things first. I still don’t know how I did it, but apparently I did.
And What You Actually Got.
Three little sachets and an instruction sheet, if you ordered the bare-bones starter kit. One was labelled ‘Water Purifier’, the other ‘Instant Life Eggs’ and ‘Growth Food’. If you followed the instructions, you were required to fill a container with water (preferably, in Von Braunhut’s opinion, a container bought from his company for this purpose), then add the contents of the sachet labelled ‘Water Purifier’ and leave it alone for twenty four hours.
Yes. Twenty . . . four . . . hours. Which is, in other words, forever. You question yourself. Were your expectations unrealistic? Should you have predicted a procedure, rather than the instant life you were promised? Is this a sign that you should cast aside childish things? No, sod that. You’ve been ripped off. Mightily. But you do it anyway. Because you’ve come this far.
So you go to bed disappointed, and thinking about Sea Monkeys, and you get up in the morning, look at the tank, and don’t see any Sea Monkeys, and you spend an interminable day in school, thinking about Sea Monkeys. And you get home, and look at the clock, and it’s not 24 hours yet, but what the hell, so you put the ‘Instant Life Eggs’ powder in and you see. . .
To begin with. So you lose interest and leave it for a few days until. . . look! There they are! Ok, they aren’t at all humanoid, they don’t have crowns, they’re plainly nothing to do with monkeys, they will evidently not be learning tricks any time soon, or ever, and stunts are out of the question, but are you disappointed?
Crushed, obviously. Even the instantaneous life moment was a deceit, not that there was anything instantaneous about it. The eggs were actually in the ‘water purifier’ sachet and had hatched over the previous 24 hours – it seems the effect of instant life was achieved by a dye in the ‘Instant Life Eggs’ sachet making the tiny crustaceans easier to see. That is, if they had indeed hatched at all.
Tearfully, you re-read the enthusiastically written instructions that came with your sachets of anti-climax. Your new pets may indulge in tickling sessions, where one Sea Monkey climbs on another Sea Monkey’s back. Right. You’ve seen ‘Life on Earth’. You’ve seen a male lion tickling a female lion’s brains out. More lies. To add insult to injury, the taste of hot salty tears reminds you, belatedly, that brine-water is free.
You count yourself lucky you didn’t shell out for the Sea-Circus Aquarium – essentially a cardboard cut out theatre that you slid over a small tank. There’s even a cut out audience to watch the Sea Monkey shenanigans when you just can’t take any more entertainment. Or, more likely, have wandered off to find some entertainment – perhaps it’s been a while since you managed to sit on your own balls? It could be fun this time, relatively speaking. In your absence your cardboard chums will be able to “laugh aloud as they [the Sea Monkeys] play tag, loop-the-loop, ride on each other like a monkey jockey on a pony!” Yes. It seems Artemia have even less variety in terms of entertainment than the audience. It’s the tickling thing again, isn’t it? Or, another way of putting it “Observe them battle like knights of old for the hand of a fair Sea Monkey damsel!” Yes. I’m sure that’s exactly what they’re doing. It’s nobodies fault that it just looks like tickling.
The only possible source of enjoyment you might claw back from your investment is to give any Sea Monkeys that make it to adulthood inappropriate names. But no. The man behind Sea Monkeys, Harold Von Braunhut, (see below) has already thought of that. Names must be ‘socially acceptable’. He suggests “Scamper, Moby Dick, Davy Jones, Barry Cuda, Barry Goldwater, Sharkey, Agamemnon, Puddles, Finn, Flippy, etc.”
Hang on – “Barry Cuda” is plainly just an example of the kind of rib-cracking humour that Mrs von Braunhut had to try and endure every day, but Agamemnon? Barry Goldwater? What the tickle?
Whose Fault It Was.
Sea Monkeys were introduced to the global market in 1962 by Harold Von Braunhut. Originally, he’d launched them under the name of Instant Life, but changed his mind, presumably because he felt it wasn’t misleading enough. He’d seen how much money a man called Milton Levine had made out of ant farms and decided that the market was crying out for an aquatic version. His entire planned hinged on an intimate knowledge of the reproductive life of the marine crustacean Artemia NYOS (a hybridised variety of Artemia salina), and a flair for shameless, outrageous, bullshit.
As we know, Von Braunhut decided that his wares would be best advertised in the back of comics. This wasn’t his first choice, a company called Wham-O had cornered the mail order market with a product called Instant Fish (a bit like Instant Life, no?) but the product had failed due to it not working terribly well. Heads rolled. When Von Braunhut approached the same channels with his Sea Monkeys, he was met with a gigantic lack of enthusiasm. Or in his own words “The doors that weren’t open to begin with slammed shut in my face.” So he picked himself up (presumably from the pavement he hadn’t fallen on) and brushed himself off (with a non-existent brush for the dust that hadn’t landed on him) and decided on the comic book route. This approach worked so well that at one point, in his own estimation, he was buying 303 million pages of advertising a year. Though given what we know about his relationship with the truth, you may want to take that with a
pinch of salt certain degree of scepticism.
Sea Monkeys weren’t his only success. He was also behind X-Ray Specs, a pair of plastic spectacles which enabled the wearer to see through skin to the bones below, and see through women’s outer garments but, curiously, not through their underwear. This was achieved (and when I say achieved, I of course mean not achieved in the slightest) by sandwiching a red-dyed feather between two bits of cardboard with hypnotic whirls printed on them. A hole pierced the cardboard, forcing the wearer to see the world through the filaments of the feather. When you held your hand in front of a strong lightbulb, it blurred the outer edges of the image. Nice one. Crazy Crabs were another of his – also known as hermit crabs. The kind of crabs you could find in a rock-pool yourself, and which would cost you not $1. He also traded in Invisible Goldfish, which were guaranteed to remain permanently invisible, by dint of not actually existing at all. These were, again, a dollar apiece. Invisible Miniature Sharks or – as a terrestrial spin-off – Invisible Pack of Wolves – may have been considered better value for money. Even though this increased range would have meant that the manufacturer would have had to re-tool his Invisible Factory Machines in his Invisible Factory, it is unlikely that that this would have made much of an impact on the production costs.
Von Braunhut was a man of contradictions and unexpected qualities. In addition to his physically harmless yet soul destroying product range, another of his inventions was the Kiyoga Agent M5, a sprung loaded cudgel like implement, supposedly the size of a pen. I imagine it was quite a big pen, otherwise you’re not going to get much cudgelling done. Perhaps most bizarrely (though he gives himself a lot of competition), Von Braunhut was Jewish, and yet was repeatedly linked to white supremacist organisations such as the infamous Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nation. He also raced motorbikes under the name of “The Green Hornet”, and managed a circus act which involved a man diving 40ft into a pool of water 1ft deep. It is not recorded whether the pool contained fresh water, or brine.
Harold Von Braunhut died in 2003, aged 77. The circumstances of his death are unclear, but seem to have involved a fall from a ladder, which may or may not have been visible.
Sea (Monkey) World.
Now then. The thing that made Von Brunhout’s run of success possible was the exploitation of an evolutionary adaptation Artemia salina developed to cope with periodic dry spells. I say developed, but of course evolution doesn’t work like that. Artemia salina developed nothing – it just so happened that some of them produced cysts (eggs) which failed to perish, courtesy of a genetic quirk that enabled them to withstand dessication, and then rehydration. After a couple of dry spells, the genes of these almost indestructible cysts were the only ones passed along, so the quirk is upgraded to a standard feature.
It also just so happened that an individual belonging to the ape species Homo sapiens sapiens managed to increase the global population of Artemia by sending them all over the planet to millions of juvenile Homo sapiens sapiens. These juveniles would then rehydrate them, on the understanding that they were another type of primate, albeit a somewhat mysterious, brine based one.
From an evolutionary standpoint this strategy has been a mixed success. For Artemia it has resulted in a huge increase in population, and a huge increase in territory. The drawback for the individuals living in a domestic setting, is that their continued existence depends entirely on the whims of a capricious ape, who is already feeling somewhat less than joyful at their presence.
For Von Brunhaut, it lead to increased wealth and influence, which in turn increased his attractiveness to the opposite sex, and therefore increased his chances of reproduction (sorry, tickling). Furthermore, by licencing the idea to manufacturers, the rights can be passed onto any non-Sea Monkey expert offspring after his death. The drawback? Hmmm. Being linked to white supremacists can be a real turn off.
Sort of Related (but More of a Look at This! Moment)
Sea the pink/red stuff? All Sea Monkeys. It sort of puts Von Brunhaut’s efforts in the shade. These breeding ponds are in the San Francisco Bay. The cysts are harvested for fish food, due to the fact that they can be stored for long periods of time, and then hatched within a day. This is again an example of apes exploiting the evolutionary advantage of another species for their own evolutionary ends (some get rich and powerful, some get to put food on the table). These are essentially evaporate lakes – salt water is allowed to flood the area, and is then cut off from the flow to produce a lake. Strong sunlight then evaporates the water, which increases the salinity until only brine shrimp can survive. Before this point is reached, impressive algal blooms occur. Ultimately, once all the water is evaporated, the salt – and the Artemis cysts – can be harvested and sold. Then you open the flood gates and begin the process again.
On Harold von Braunhut:
L.A. Times article, including “The doors that weren’t open to begin with slammed shut in my face.” quote:
Southern Poverty Law Centre article about white supremecist links:
New York Times Obituary:
On Sea Monkeys and other mail order scams;
Collector’s Weekly Article: Sea-Monkeys and X-Ray Spex: Collecting the Bizarre Stuff Sold in the Back of Comic Books
Gweek 019: Mail Order Mysteries
By Mark Frauenfelder at 8:00 am Monday, Oct 3
Wiki page on Artemia:
Artemia Production for Marine Larval Fish Culture
By Granvil D. Treece (PDF)
Biogeography of the Brine Shrimp, Artemia: Distribution of Parthenogenetic and Sexual Populations.
Robert A. Browne and Gene H. MacDonald.
Journal of Biogeography
Vol. 9, No. 4 (Jul., 1982), pp. 331-338
Introduction, biology and ecology of Artemia
By Gilbert Van Stappen
Sea Monkey Advertisements: Unable to locate copyright holder – if you believe you are the copyright holder, please contact me.
Artemia Breeding Ponds: Wikimedia. Image taken by Doc. Searls.
Artemia stars/planet collage: Created by Henry Rothwell from the following Creative Commons/Public Domain images:
Artemia: Wikimedia – http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/File:Artemia_salina_4.jpg
Planet Earth: http://visibleearth.nasa.gov/view.php?id=54388