Newsmaker: The rubber duck

Originally conceived to lure children into the tub, the simple blob of buoyant yellowish vulcanised rubber continues to float above it all as an ageless poster boy for all things fun, wholesome and squeaky clean, writes Jonathan Gornall.
Kagan McLeod for The National
Kagan McLeod for The National

He’s raised countless millions of dollars for charity, fascinated artists and scientists alike and made bath-time fun for generations of children and adults – including, it is rumoured, the Queen of England.

Designed for nothing more turbulent than the balmy waters of the domestic bathtub, he is an intrepid adventurer who has survived disaster at sea and spent the past two decades braving the storm-tossed oceans of the world, circumnavigating the globe in an existential adventure that has fired the imagination of writers and filmmakers.

Endlessly imitated, in Dubai this week he was the subject of the sincerest form of flattery with a giant impostor that had muscled in on the UAE’s National Day celebrations and drew thousands of awed onlookers to the banks of the Dubai Creek.

He is the yellow rubber duck, a global icon of popular culture who last month also received the ultimate accolade for his kind – induction into the American National Toy Hall of Fame.

But who exactly is he – if, indeed, he is a he – and where did he come from?

It all began in the late 1800s, in an overused American family bathtub. That, at least, is one theory, floated most recently by the director of Pittsburgh’s ToonSeum, which in October ran a duck-themed exhibition in honour of the appearance in the city of the original giant inflatable duck, created in 2007 by Dutch artist Florentign Hofman.

The ToonSeum’s Joe Wos told Pittsburgh radio station WESA that the birth of the rubber duck was a product of the rise of factories and the parallel popularity of a weekly bath, necessary to scrub away the grime of mass labour in time for church on Sundays.

Dad went first and so on down the family pecking order and, “when you get down to the littlest ones, they’ve got to go into that dirty, filthy water that the whole family has used, so you need a way to get them into the tub – and suddenly the tub becomes playtime.”

Playtime, though, was a problem – most toys of the day simply sank. Wos credits Charles Goodyear, the man who invented vulcanised rubber in 1839, with developing the blow-moulding technology that made it possible for the rubber duck to float.

Unfortunately, that’s where it gets a little bit murky, just like the water in the tub. One of the first known examples was a 1930s Donald Duck rubber duck created for Disney. But as to who had the original yellow-duck eureka moment, says Wos: “There were so many people involved that the person who created the rubber duck is lost to history.”

Whoever they were, they really started something.

The rubber duck’s big breakthrough into popular culture came with a squeaking role in the long-running children’s television programme Sesame Street, which made its debut in November 1969.

He was cast as the bath-time pal of the Muppet character Ernie, who made his “Rubber Duckie” famous by serenading him in the bath – a song that in September 1970 saw the pair reach number 16 on the Billboard Hot 100.

There was, Ernie told the millions of children who regularly watched the programme, one thing “that makes tubby time the very best time of the whole day ... a very special friend of mine, my very favourite little pal”. And a star was born.

In 1995, Duckie, accompanied by Hoots the owl on sax, reprised the hit with a very special Sesame Street guest – the singer Little Richard, who played piano and belted out a rock ‘n’ roll version of the song while he sat in a foam-filled bath.

The performance was all the more remarkable for the fact that just three years earlier Duckie had endured a traumatic incident that would come to define him, both as a heroic if quirky symbol of the modern age and an exemplar of fortitude and endurance.

On January 10, 1992, a ship crossing the Pacific from Hong Kong to Tacoma, Washington, on the west coast of America was struck by a storm that swept a dozen shipping containers from its deck.

In itself, that was not unusual; shipping experts believe up to 10,000 containers fall off ships every year. Occasionally, buoyant survivors such as trainers wash up on beaches in large numbers.

But no spill has ever captured the public imagination like the fleet of rubber ducks that found itself adrift in the Pacific in 1992 and has gone on wandering the oceans of the world ever since, like a doomed flock of plastic-feathered ancient mariners.

About 10 months after the accident, the first ducks began washing up on the shores of Alaska. They attracted the attention of Curtis Ebbesmeyer, a Seattle-based oceanographer, who immediately saw their potential for his research.

The fleet, he wrote in a paper published in 1994, provided “new data for research on ocean current pathways because it was far larger than the usual planned instantaneous release of 500 to 1,000 drift bottles.”

Oceanographers were used to recovering only 2 per cent of objects released into the Pacific Ocean for study purposes, but “the drift pattern documented here is based on hundreds of recoveries compared with 10 or so drift bottles”, he wrote in the journal Earth in Space.

The very first of the ducks – just half a dozen – were discovered on a beach on November 16, 1992. They have been turning up ever since and are expected to do so for some time yet. Almost 30,000 went overboard and only a few thousand have so far been encountered by beachcombers or spotted from passing ships.

Since 1992, the ducks have boldly gone where no ducks have gone before, riding the currents of the great oceans and cropping up in locations as far apart as Japan, Alaska and Australia.

In 2003, and again in 2007, they even made it to the UK. To get there, oceanographers say, they must have headed north from the Pacific through the Bering Strait, hitching a ride in the Arctic ice pack – becoming in the process the first toys ever to reach the North Pole under their own steam – before being spat out on the far side of Greenland.

From there, they were carried south by currents along the east coast of America – after which a storm-assisted Atlantic crossing to the UK was mere child’s play.

For the past six years, another version of the rubber duck has been travelling the globe, but under rather more civilised circumstances. In 2007, the Dutch artist Hofman created the 25-metre-tall inflatable Rubber Duck, an impressive, if slightly sinister, tribute to the childhood toy that has drawn huge crowds in cities around the world, including Beijing, Hong Kong, Pittsburgh, Sydney and Sao Paulo.

By Hofman’s estimate, his Rubber Duck has been seen by more than 190 million people.

The artist was reported to be furious when a replica of his Rubber Duck – made, appropriately enough, in China, like the castaway originals – turned up in Dubai this week as a promotional prop for a local car-wash firm. Hofman denounced the impostor as “a pirate version”, but it is difficult to see how he, or anyone else, could claim copyright on such a cultural icon.

Since his mysterious origins, the rubber duck has become part of the global vernacular, a buoyant symbol of fun and optimism in any language – even geek-speak. In 1999, he gave his name to the term “Rubber ducking”. This was not flattery; it refers to the practice among software engineers of tracking down bugs in code by explaining it, line by line, as if to an inanimate, computer-illiterate rubber duck, as celebrated in the book The Pragmatic Programmer.

Today, rubber ducks are manufactured and sold all over the world in versions ranging from the original to designs customised to suit just about every interest and occasion. The online Quacker Gift Shop – one of many – offers ducks wearing hats, crowns and turbans, with some dressed as firefighters, boxers, married couples and even Darth Vader.

And every year, thousands of them perform good works, helping to raise millions of dollars in charity duck races in countries around the world.

For collectors, duck hunting can become obsessive. The Guinness World Records title for the largest collection is currently held by Charlotte Lee, a professor of human-centred design and engineering at the University of Washington, who at the last count was the proud if slightly quackers owner of 5,631 different rubber ducks.

The rubber duck has infiltrated the very highest levels of society. In 2001, The Sun newspaper in the UK reported that a workman who had been redecorating the Queen’s bathroom spotted a traditional yellow duck – complete with crown. “I nearly fell off my ladder when I saw it,” he told the newspaper. “At least it shows the Queen has a good sense of humour.”

So what’s the big attraction of the little duck? Hofman, creator of the ultimate tribute, has tried to define the appeal of a simple bathtub toy that somehow spread its wings and took flight in the imagination of the world.

He sees his creation, like its inspiration, as “a very positive artistic statement that immediately connects people to their childhood”. The rubber duck, he says, “has healing properties; it can relieve global tensions as well as define them ... it knows no frontiers, doesn’t discriminate against people and doesn’t have a political connotation.”

The Strong Museum in Rochester, New York, inducted the rubber duck into the National Toy Hall of Fame on November 7. “With their bright colour, smooth texture, and squeaky or quacky sounds, rubber ducks sharpen toddlers’ senses, soothe youngsters’ fears of water and make good clean fun of the routine hygiene they’re learning,” it noted.

Or, as Ernie once put it more concisely, it’s “the thing that makes tubby time the very best time of the whole day ... Rubber Duckie, you’re the one.”

Follow us @LifeNationalUAE

Follow us on Facebook for discussions, entertainment, reviews, wellness and news.

Published: December 5, 2013 04:00 AM


Editor's Picks
Sign up to:

* Please select one