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Dec 11, 1998, 3:00:00 AM12/11/98
David Hampton knows what he would have done if his parents had presented him
with a Furby on his ninth birthday.

"One, I'd take the fur off," said Hampton, now 47, who invented the five-inch
gremlin in his California home last year but who was willing, for the sake of a
telephone interview, to transport himself to the basement of his boyhood home
near Detroit.

"Two, I'd open up the case, the shell," he continued. "Three, look at
everything as it's working -- that way I can see how everything is tied
together. Four, I would start disassembling the circuit board."

"And if I really succeeded," he said, "I would put it all back together and
it would still work."

For those who have never had the pleasure of elbowing through Toys "R" Us in
fruitless pursuit, the Furby is this season's "it" toy: a cuddly -- some would
say cloying -- mechanized ball of synthetic hair that is part penguin, part owl
and part kitten. Furby has a synthesized 200-word vocabulary in a language
called Furbish and the ability to squeal if the lights go out, snore and even

If the Pet Rock and Tickle Me Elmo had mated, in a union sealed with a Mood
Ring, they would have given birth to a Furby.

In fact, he or she -- the sex of the Furby is at the owner's discretion --
came from the imagination of Hampton, a perpetual inventor of toys and medical
products who lives with his wife and two young sons in a home without
electricity in the Tahoe National Forest.

He won't name the nearest town, which is 25 miles away, because he says he is
afraid of frantic parents' beating on his door demanding the plush companions,
which have been flying off store shelves and now fetch 10 times their suggested
$30 retail price on the Internet.

Hampton pleads not guilty to stoking the marketing juggernaut that has
engulfed the Furby, which has been presided over by the company to which he
licensed the toy last year, Tiger Electronics of Vernon Hills, Ill. And even
though the estimated two million units sold have probably made him millions (he
won't say), his naOvete is convincing.

This, after all, is someone whose earliest idea of a toy was a toaster
waiting to be taken apart. Before he reached puberty, he says, the basement of
his family's white-brick home in Roseville, Mich., was littered with nearly a
dozen broken radios belonging to neighbors -- which he fixed, for a few
dollars, sometimes at 4 A.M.

When he was 13, he began working in a little television repair shop. Not long
after that, he resurrected a World War II radar system (which wound up jamming
the local police frequency) and built a ham radio.

"I had a neighbor call and say, 'Are you WA8-JAD?' " he recalls. "My voice
was coming out all over the neighborhood telephones."

"My brothers were playing with more traditional toys," he says. "Me, I would
much rather have a tube checker."

Having read in Popular Electronics that "the best electronics school was the
Navy," Hampton enlisted soon after graduating from high school in 1970. He
chose aviation electronics as his specialty.

During his eight years in the service, he traveled the world, learning
Japanese, Thai, Chinese and Hebrew. His training led to jobs in Silicon Valley,
including one designing the video game Q-Bert and another in product
development for Mattel.

In the early 1990's, he formed his own design and consulting company, Sounds
Amazing, and it was in that capacity that he traveled to New York in February
1997 for the annual Toy Fair trade show.

There, he saw the interactive, digital pets known as Tamagotchi. Though they
exist on electronic screens no bigger than a watch, the toys require their
owners to feed them and clean up after them with the push of a button, or they

Hampton saw a fatal flaw: "You can't pet it." So he returned to his home
workshop and began writing about his ideal virtual pet, with the working name

"I started a script, like, if you rub his back, he'll purr," Hampton said.

He also gave Furby a language, an amalgam of all the languages he had picked
up. Thus when Furby says "da," he is using the Mandarin word for "big." When he
says, "ay lo," for "light," it is a variation of a Hebrew word for God.

Using a crude electronic board not unlike the Heathkits he played with as a
boy, Hampton brought Furby's scratchy voice to life. A former colleague from
Mattel, Caleb Chung, created the mechanics.

By November 1997, Hampton had sold the idea to Tiger Electronics. By
February, a crude model was shown at the Toy Fair, tethered to a generator. In
September, Wired magazine endorsed Furby as the season's "hottest new toy," and
the toy industry was on its way to having its next Beanie Baby.

In an accolade that only the Internet could bestow, one disgruntled owner has
conducted an on-line autopsy of his Furby (, complete with
a toe-tagged "crime scene photo."

"Frankly," the self-described scientist wrote, "we find him much more amusing
dead than he was alive."

Hampton has seen the site.

"My first thought was, 'That's what I would have done,' " he said. "The other
side of me said: 'My baby! They're dissecting my babies!' "
Cam "98""A truly wise man never plays leapfrog with a unicorn"

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