Though National Inventors Hall of Fame® (NIHF) Inductee Milton Bradley’s name has become synonymous with the company responsible for creating some of America’s most beloved games, including Twister®, Battleship® and The Game of Life®, while growing up during the mid-1800s, Bradley had no intention of pursuing a business in creating games.
Instead, following in the footsteps of his father, he originally trained as a craftsman. By 1856, he had traveled to Springfield, Massachusetts, and landed a job as a mechanical draftsman. With the skills he developed there, Bradley started his own lithography business four years later and found unexpected success creating a lithograph of (then clean-shaven) presidential candidate Abraham Lincoln.
When Lincoln won the presidential election that same year in 1860, he decided to grow out his beard, plummeting the value of Bradley’s large stock of Lincoln lithographs. However, his luck changed when one day, while playing a board game with one of his friends, Bradley suddenly came up with an idea for a game of his own that would simulate a person’s life.
The Checkered Game of Life
Called “The Checkered Game of Life” and featuring a board of 64 squares, players used a spinner to move their “counter” across the board. They would begin on the “Infancy” tile at the bottom left of the board and make their way toward “Happy Old Age.” “The game represents, as indicated by the name, the checkered journey of life,” Bradley wrote in “Rules of the Game.” Along the way, players could land on squares like “School,” “Poverty,” “Bravery” and “Idleness.”
To his surprise, the game was an overnight success and during that winter, Bradley sold more than 40,000 copies of his game. The following spring marked the beginning of the Civil War, and Bradley was able to develop inexpensive game kits that charitable organizations purchased in large quantities for soldiers, solidifying his career as a successful game manufacturer. In 1866, he earned a patent for “The Checkered Game of Life,” and his company took off.
Because of his religious upbringing, “The Checkered Game of Life” was designed with a very clear and present moral code. “He viewed everything as an educational opportunity. It was an opportunity for people to be educated in the way he thought they should be,” Jennifer Snyder, associate professor of art education at Austin Peay State University, said in an article published by Vox. “The game of Life is very much about taking the moral high road and walking the appropriate path."
An Advocate of Early Education
Beyond his success as an entrepreneur, Bradley was an early supporter of the kindergarten movement that was originated in Germany by educator Friedrich Frobel and during the mid to late 1800s, was beginning to gain traction in the United States. Bradley began producing geometric wooden toys that children would be able to play with and explore, as well as different colored paints and colored papers that allowed children to be creative.
Though the educational side of his business lost money for decades, Bradley remained committed to supporting the kindergarten movement and continued producing educational toys. However, during the early 1900s, when early childhood became increasingly standardized across the country, Milton Bradley’s educational branch quickly grew into one of its most successful areas of business. The company helped teachers provide their students with interactive games, art supplies and even storybooks to educate and inspire the next generation.
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