Operation inventor doesn’t have a ‘Broken Heart’ over lack of royalties

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The game Operation is celebrating its 50th anniversary this year.
The game Operation celebrates its 50th anniversary this year.
Photo: Board Game Geek

John Spinello stuck a safety pin in a light socket. He was 3 and never forgot how the shock “flipped me over backwards.”

As an adult, he turned that moment of mischievous curiosity into a board game that shaped the lives of millions of kids around the world.

Any “dopey doctor” who has played Operation knows the loud buzzing sound when you’ve botched your attempt at removing the patient’s funny bone. It first went off 50 years ago this year. Kids today play the game, adults still hear the buzzer from their childhood and some actually credit it with their pursuit of a career in medicine.

Operation was first produced by Milton Bradley and quickly became popular after it hit stores in 1965.
Operation was first produced by Milton Bradley and quickly became popular after it hit stores in 1965.
Photo: I Love Operation

“I think it came out at a time when there wasn’t anything like it, so it had a good chance to take root in the hearts and minds of kids everywhere,” said Peggy Brown, a game developer and Spinello fan. “Operation is ubiquitous. Everybody has played it and it’s the kind of toy that shows how play is integral in our development as human beings.”

Operation has been produced in many languages and in many versions, like one with Shrek or Buzz Lightyear as the patient. Players select a card and can earn money to remove a particular ailment from the patient, Sam, like “Spare Ribs,” a “Funny Bone” or a “Broken Heart.” The metal-edged openings are barely big enough for the ailment pieces. The buzzer sounds if the tweezers touch an edge and Sam’s nose lights up.

That so many have enjoyed the game has made Spinello 78, of Bloomingdale, Ill., a rich man. Yet after selling a prototype he made in a college class for $500, Spinello never made a dime on the game.

John Spinello in his Illinois home with his prototype box that led to the creation of the game Operation.
John Spinello in his Illinois home with his prototype box that led to the creation of the game Operation.
Photo: Tim Walsh

Remembering the shock from the light socket, Spinello built a box with an overcharged battery and a loud buzzer. A user would take a metal stylus and trace a maze and go through a series of openings on the box. A wrong turn produced a spark and loud buzzing noise.

Encouraged by one of his instructors at the University of Illinois, Spinello, an industrial design major, made an appointment to see toy developer Marvin Glass at his office in Chicago in 1964.

“He kind of rolled his eyes at me when he saw it,” Spinello told Cult of Mac. “So he tested it and the buzzer went off, a spark shot out and he said, ‘I love it.’ He offered me $500 and promised me a job. Well, I never got the job.

“I remember when the game first came out (in 1965). I stumbled into a store and there it was bigger than life. I gave them the seed and they ran with it. If they didn’t have the original box, the game would never have happened.”

Spinello and his friends insist he is not bitter about the broken promise or a deal that turned over the rights to a mechanism that made the owners of the game (first Milton Bradley and now Hasbro) more than $40 million dollars. He is content with knowing how popular the game has been and delights in meeting fans at toy and board game conventions.

He is often asked to join in a game in progress during these conventions, but he would rather watch, he said.

Spinello’s contribution to the iconic game is finally being celebrated. His story came to light last year after game makers, led by Brown and Tim Walsh, raised money for Spinello, who could not afford much needed dental surgery.

The irony, that the inventor of Operation couldn’t afford one, made headlines. Brown and Walsh built the website I Love Operation and raised more than $25,000 through crowdfunding for Spinello’s surgery.

The website was flooded with tributes to the game and good wishes to its inventor from around the world.

“In July of 1966, at the age of 11, I had to undergo a major surgical procedure,” wrote Dr. Steven Stryker. “Fortunately, I recovered rather quickly, but the experience provided a fascination with medicine, science and, in particular, the field of surgery. I was thrilled when I received a gift of an early version of Operation a short time later. I guess I really enjoyed honing my skills on that board game. I’m currently a clinical professor of surgery at Northwestern University Medical School, working at Northwestern Memorial Hospital, still trying to avoid that buzzer!!! Thanks for all the joy you’ve provided, all the careers you’ve launched, and (this is not a stretch), all the lives you’ve probably saved.”

After the huge response to Spinello’s plight, Brown and Walsh began producing a documentary film on the game and its inventor called Buzz Heard ‘Round The World. A campaign to fund completion of the movie will launch Aug. 1 on Indiegogo.

Spinello recently sold his prototype to the game’s current owner, Hasbro, so that it can go in a board game museum.

“He’s been good at letting go of the hurt,” Brown said. “He’s just proud that he created this thing and how people have connected over the game. “It’s nice he is finally getting the recognition. It’s almost like redemption.”