Bryans Road -- ECCENTRIC is too mild a word to describe Harold von Braunhut, a cartoon character come to life.
At age 71, he stands no taller than 5-foot-5, with slumped shoulders and a mostly bald pate, but remains an imposing presence nonetheless. Barking orders at his small but loyal staff in a thick New York accent (in Harold-speak, the word "beautiful" becomes "bee-YOO-dee-full"), he often smacks his rubber-tipped cane against the wall for emphasis.
His staff, which includes wife Yolanda, seem to take von Braunhut's outbursts in stride. Maybe it's because they know that beneath his crusty facade lies a soft-hearted environmentalist, an extraordinary mind, a boy who became a man without sacrificing that childlike wonder most of us are too quick to discard.
"He's the master professor," Yolanda beams as von Braunhut scrambles around the couple's Bryans Road residence, which doubles as an office. At the moment, however, the president of Transcience Corp. has little interest in business -- he's too preoccupied scolding Josephine, their ornery cockatoo, who's squawking with utter abandon.
The "master professor" is an inventor with nearly 200 patents to his name. But what Harold von Braunhut is best known for are his contributions to popular culture. He's the man behind such novelties as X-Ray Spex, the comic book come-on that guaranteed wearers could "see thru clothing!" The '70s craze in which the hermit crab was suddenly the "it" pet to get? He's responsible for that, too.
But of all his inventions, the one that's made the biggest impact is the tiniest in size. Harold von Braunhut is the father of Sea-Monkeys.
Anyone who ever cracked open a comic book in the 1960s knows about Sea-Monkeys, "a true MIRACLE of nature," the ads boasted. Back then, mail order was the only way to buy the "instant-pets" -- actually tiny brine shrimp that grow in their own mini-aquarium. Today, Sea-Monkeys are sold in stores worldwide.
"We're blazing new trails," says George Atamian, vice president of ExploraToy of Carson, Calif., the product's distributor since 1995. He says sales of the novelty pets are better than ever, though exact figures are guarded as closely as the secrets of Sea-Monkey technology.
Atamian attributes the sales boom mainly to baby boomers hungry for nostalgia.
"There's this big thing with retro," he says. "There's so many people who knew Sea-Monkeys" who want to introduce them to their kids. As von Braunhut likes to point out, they're now selling to a third generation of Sea-Monkey enthusiasts.
And though von Braunhut takes pride in his invention's pop-culture status, he's more interested in the product's intellectual value.
"People say, 'What gave you the idea for Sea-Monkeys?' I thought, if you could take a package of powder and put it in water and see it come to life. What could be more remarkable than that?"
To him, Sea-Monkeys are more miracle than novelty. It's proof positive, he says, that "God-given natural splendor" can captivate generations weaned on the artifice television has to offer. And why not? After all, Sea-Monkeys teach children that what they might think is science fiction may turn out to be science fact.
Birth of alterna-pet
Long before the new kid-craze of electronic pets like Tamagotchi was a twinkle in somebody's hard drive, von Braunhut's Sea-Monkeys offered children an inexpensive, low-maintenance alternative to traditional animals.
For the uninitiated, Sea-Monkeys are a cousin of Artemia salina, more commonly known as brine shrimp. Because of certain "cryptobiotic" properties the crustacean has, it's possible to preserve their eggs so that they exist in a sort of suspended animation. Von Braunhut discovered a way to mix these eggs with a formula of what he refers to as "magic crystals" so they could be brought to life by anybody with a 12-ounce container and some water.
A bare-bones Sea-Monkey kit, which sells for about $8, comes with a small plastic tank, a 35-page handbook and three packets of "top-secret" mixtures. One is used to condition tap water; another holds the eggs; and a third, special food. Other bizarre accessories can be ordered through the mail: Sea-Monkey Banana Treat, Red Magic vitamins and Cupid's Arrow mating powder. ("For shy Sea-Monkeys afraid of 'marriage,' this fabulous formula will give them a quick trip 'to the altar,' " the catalog claims.)
Von Braunhut conceived of the idea in 1957, when he saw a bucket of brine shrimp being sold as fish food in a pet store.
"I was always interested in wildlife, and I was looking for something that would interest other people in it," he says. He started research that year.
The original Sea-Monkeys, marketed under the name Instant-Life, sold in 1960 for a mere 49 cents. "Keeping them alive was a terrible struggle," the inventor recalls.