Who'd have thought that a right-wing nutcase invented not only Sea Monkeys, but X-Ray Specs? The peculiar life of Harold von Braunhut...
Harold von Braunhut, who used comic book advertisements to sell whimsical
mail-order inventions like Amazing Sea Monkeys, tiny shrimp that pop to life
when water is added, died on Nov. 28 at his home in Indian Head, Maryland. He was
His wife, Yolanda, said that he died after a fall but that the exact cause
was not known.
Mr. von Braunhut was to quirky inventions what Barnum was to circuses. His
X-Ray Specs, which advertisements said allowed wearers to see through flesh
and clothing, are still selling after 50 years of guffaws. Hermit crabs as a
pet? Thank Mr. von Braunhut for Crazy Crabs.
And yes, perhaps only this verbally snappy holder of 195 patents could have
realized that what the world needed was Amazing Hair-Raising Monsters, which
allow a child to add water to a card and watch hair grow on the previously
bald pate of the monster depicted there.
But Mr. von Braunhut's pièce de résistance was Sea Monkeys - which come from
dried-up lake bottoms, not the sea, and are not monkeys but brine shrimp.
His extravagant claims for the crustaceans - for example, that they come
back from the dead and that they can be trained and hypnotized - are
convincing because they are sort of true. (The shrimp do follow light.)
Billions of shrimp have been sold, not to mention a Sea Monkey aphrodisiac
and a wrist watch filled with swimming shrimp. There are Web sites for sea
monkey fans; CBS briefly had a Sea Monkeys series on Saturday mornings; 400
million of them went into space with John Glenn in 1998; and, for the lazy,
a new Sea Monkey video game allows a player to "virtually" care for a shrimp
colony, lest the animals "virtually" die.
Mr. von Braunhut gravitated toward life's crazier edge, racing motorcycles
as the Green Hornet and managing the career of a man who dived from 40 feet
into a kiddie pool filled with 12 inches of water. He sold invisible
goldfish by guaranteeing that owners would never see them.
In a radically different sphere, Mr. von Braunhut's hard right-wing beliefs
drew notice. According to a 1996 Anti-Defamation League report, he belonged
to the Ku Klux Klan and the Aryan Nations.
The Washington Post in 1988 published an article on him and his
affiliations, adding that his relatives said he was Jewish. He himself
repeatedly refused to discuss his beliefs on race or his own religious
background with journalists, and in an interview on Thursday his wife
declined to comment on the subject.
Harold Nathan Braunhut was born in Memphis on March 31, 1926, and grew up in
New York City, where he lived until the mid-1980's, when he moved to
Maryland and set up a wildlife conservation area.
He may have first noticed brine shrimp being sold in a pet store as fish
food, or perhaps in a fisherman's bucket of live bait. In either case, the
event occurred in 1957, by which time he had changed his name.
He learned that brine shrimp were a quirk of nature, surviving for years in
suspended animation. In this state, they are powderlike and easily packaged.
In 1960, he began advertising "Instant Life" in comic books.
In 1964 the animals became Sea Monkeys, because of their long tails. There
were breeding improvements, and an ABC News commentator suggested in 1968
that the larger shrimp, now guaranteed to live two years, might be called
The Los Angeles Times reported in 2000 that two distributors had canceled
their licenses for Sea Monkeys because of discomfort about Mr. von
Braunhut's views. The license is currently owned by Educational Insights of
Rancho Dominguez, Calif.
George C. Artamian, president of the Sea Monkeys division of Educational
Insights, said the earlier companies dropped the Sea Monkey license for
business reasons, not the least being that Mr. von Braunhut was "not easy to
work with." He said that when his company bought the license in 1995, Mr.
von Braunhut promised to stop his public political activities, and that he
believes Mr. von Braunhut did so.