C. B. Fry (1872 – 1956), was an English sportsman, politician, diplomat, academic, teacher, writer, editor and publisher, who is best remembered for his career as a cricket player. Journalist John Arlott described Fry in the following way: “Charles Fry could be autocratic, angry and self-willed: he was also magnanimous, extravagant, generous, elegant, brilliant – and fun … he was probably the most variously gifted Englishman of any age.“
Fry’s athletic achievements included representing England at both cricket and soccer /football and equaling the world record for the long jump at the time. As amazing as it sounds, he also turned down the throne of Albania shortly after World War I!
At this point you may be asking yourself what a man such as C. B. Fry has to do with juggling. Well, Fry was the publisher of C. B. Fry’s Magazine, a popular sports periodical in England. Fry was always looking for new games and sporting events to highlight in his magazine. In 1905, Gustave Philippart, an engineer from Belguim, came across some old French diabolo equipment. Under the name of “le diable,” the skill had been a craze in France around 1812. The props of that time resembled two connected balls, with you can see below and later in this article. It is believed that the toy came to Europe via missionaries returning from China.
Philippart experimented with redesigning the prop and settled upon a two cone design and added a ring of rubber at the widest point of each cone. He filed a patent for his reinvention of the toy on August 1, 1905, calling it a “double top for games” and “diable.” You can view the patent by clicking here.
Philippart visited Fry and the two decided to partner in reintroducing the skill to the general public. Fry suggested that the prop be made of celluloid, an early type of plastic, rather than wood or metal. Fry came back a month later with a finished version. Prior to registering a trademark for the new invention, Fry had decided on the name “Trajecto,” but a last minute change to “Diabolo” gives us the standard name still used today. Fry wasn’t just satisfied with introducing the basic skills of spinning, tossing, catching, and manipulating the diabolo. Instead, he hoped to build an entire new sport around the skill. In the articles below, which were published in 1907, you can see that he came up with a tennis-like game. He even published a book on the subject, which you can see advertised below.
While the tennis version of the game never caught on, many copycats appeared using Philippart’s design and Fry’s “diabolo” name. Soon the skill of diabolo was all the fashion in France and England. An example of its popularity can be seen in an account of the Wright Brothers and their fascination with the diabolo. In his book The Wright Brothers, author David McCullough reported the following regarding the Wright Brothers’ trip to Paris.
“Greatest by far was the spectacle of seeing so many—children, men, and women of all ages—playing with “diabolo,” a simple, age-old toy that had lately become all the rage. It consisted of a wooden spool the shape of an hourglass and two bamboo sticks about two feet in length, joined by a string four to five feet in length, and it cost about 50 cents. The player would slip the string around the spool, then, a stick in each hand, lift the spool from the ground and start it spinning and by spinning it faster, keep it balanced in the air. It was because the spool would so often fall to the ground, until the beginner got the knack, that it was called “the devil’s game.” It had originated in China a hundred years or more earlier, and to the brothers it was irresistible. The time the brothers devoted to playing diabolo so publicly did not go unnoticed and added still more to the growing puzzlement over les frères mystérieux. The “mystery” of the Wrights, wrote the Paris Herald, remained as dense as ever, and quoted an American visitor who frequently observed them in the garden of the Tuileries and became convinced they had laid aside their flying machine and quit thinking about it. “Everybody knows,” the man had said, “that when a person has contracted the diabolo habit he cannot possibly attend to anything else.” Apparently the brothers caught on quickly to the diabolo art and became quite good at it. But for Charlie Taylor, the spool kept falling to the ground nine tries out of ten. As for what else Charlie Taylor may have been doing to pass the time, besides diabolo, there is no record. When Katharine (their sister) read about the hours spent in the park, she bristled as a schoolteacher must. “You never told me whether you learned to talk any French,” she wrote to Orville. “Instead of sitting around in the park everlastingly, it seems to me that I would have been getting around to see everything about Paris. Couldn’t you get someone to talk French with you?” Just the same, she asked them to “be sure” to bring home a diabolo for her.
So, we have Mr. Fry and Mr. Philippart to thank for popularizing and reinventing the diabolo. Jugglers such as Ollie Young and his wife April quickly added the diabolo to their acts and the skill has been associated with juggling ever since.
I have discovered that diabolo was already somewhat associated with juggling when Fry and Philippart were introducing their version. Below is an advertisement from Stanyon’s Juggling Apparatus catalog from 1907. The same prop was advertised without the illustration in Stanyon’s 1906 catalog. Note the shape of the diabolo is different from Philippart’s simple double cone version. It has a double cone axle but adds thick “wheels” on the outside.
Before we get back to Fry and Philippart’s story, I want to give you a few additional resources regarding diabolo history. You might be surprised to learn that there are two museums devoted to diabolo. One is a permanent museum in Beijing, China. Click here to learn about it. The other is a traveling museum exhibit, Le Musee du Diabolo, that is curated by Renaud Gras. Click here to learn about this wonderful exhibit as well as much more about the history of diabolo.
Below are the two articles written by Fry and published in his magazine in March and December of 1907. It contains some very interesting history of the prop and photos, as well as the intended instructions for diabolo tennis.