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Inventor of “Operation” Game Visit at Brentwood Inspires Innovation

February 16, 2017

“It takes a verrrrry steady hand….”

This phrase will almost certainly bring to mind with a smile a buzzing noise, a bright yellow board, and a red, light-up nose to generations of children. Since 1965, the game “Operation” has been played by millions of people and has an interesting history.

On Wednesday, February 15, this history was shared by the inventor of the game himself, John Spinello, to fourth grade students at Brentwood Elementary School. The fourth graders have been learning about inventions and innovations, so it was an ideal time to bring in Spinello as a guest speaker. Brentwood Teacher Mati Mangialardi, who grew up with his children, helped arrange for Spinello to visit with Stephanie Lambert-Peterson’s class.

Since Spinello’s game is well known to many children, the opportunity to hear his story captivated the attention – and imagination – of the students.

Spinello, who in 1962 was a student at the University of Illinois, was studying industrial design and was assigned a school project of designing a toy. He earned the highest grade in the class with a box-shaped electric toy, made of metal with holes and a crooked maze drilled through the top. It came with a metal rod, and players had to get the rod in the openings without touching the sides or else it would set off a loud bell.

Spinello’s godfather, a top model maker at Marvin Glass Associates at the time, saw the game and brought Spinello to the president of the company. Spinello was offered $500 and a job after college for the rights to the game, which is all he ever received from its creation. The original game, which was first set in “Death Valley” where players were in search of water, was changed to take place in the operating room once it reached the Milton Bradley Company. Spinello’s original toy idea became the game many know and love.

Students prepared well for his visit and asked many questions about how he came up with the idea to make his original toy, what modifications he would make if he made the game today, and about his career in general. Spinello was good-natured and patient with the students. When one student asked if the character on the operation table was modeled after someone he knew, Spinello joked, “Well, I certainly don’t know anyone who looks like Cavity Sam, do you? Ever had a teacher who looked like that?” The students laughed in delight.

Spinello encouraged students to never discount their ideas and to see them through from start to finish. He spoke about how the Operation game, loved by millions of children, started out as a simple idea he had as a college student. After answering all their questions, he signed autographs, including both the box and the game itself for children who brought it in.

Since the students were familiar with the game, and most of them have played it, Lambert-Peterson was grateful Spinello made time to speak to the students. “When students learn about famous inventions or creations, it is often really difficult to grasp that it was originally made by one person with one idea,” she said. “I’m excited for students to learn how one school project sparked a game that has made millions of people happy.”

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