Tickle Me Elmo has a past that’s disproportionately dark when held next to the fact that it’s a giggly toy made in the image of a friendly kids’ show puppet. Not only was the wriggling beast responsible for a clerk being badly injured at a Canadian Walmart—and for giving us these indelible images of its robotic skeleton twitching in bug-like mirth—but, 25 years ago, making it helped give the FBI another reason to believe its inventor could’ve been the Unabomber.
Over at Mel Magazine, Brian VanHooker spoke to the toy’s co-creator, Mark Williams, about an eventful 1996 that saw him release one of the most popular Christmas presents of all time and, more importantly, stop being investigated as a Unabomber suspect.
Apparently, before Ted Kaczynski was arrested on April 3rd of that year and Tickle Me Elmo was put out in July, Williams was frequently visited and phoned by the FBI. He was under investigation for a number of reasons—and some pretty fantastic coincidences—that mostly had to do with his work in the creation of “talking computer chips for airplanes” in the years before he went to work for educational electronics company Leapfrog.
Williams, who has “a background in nuclear physics,” first learned he was under investigation when his wife received a call from the FBI asking to speak to him toward the end of 1995.
He was soon questioned by agents about possible connections to the Unabomber case. These ranged from Williams’ oldest son having the same name as a clue found on a Kaczynski letter to the fact that he possessed blueprints for the Boeing plane model he once worked on that had also been targeted by Kaczynski.
Williams had also traveled from airports that had been marked as potential bombing sites, visited locations where the Unabomber had mailed explosives, and had “lived within 20 miles of [Kaczysnski]” at “three different times in [his] life.”
All of these connections to Kaczynski’s background were made even more suspicious because Williams worked in a lab “full of headless electronic dolls hung on hooks on the wall” and had been employed by a toy rocket company whose product development required the use of lots of black powder and “the same fuses used in pipe bombs.”
Williams describes the FBI “[parking] outside my house some days and [following] my wife around while I was at work,” calling his previous employers, and also getting audited “out of nowhere.”
“They do all this to try to get someone to make a mistake,” Williams said. “But I hadn’t done anything, so there was nothing to hide.”
Eventually, after Kaczynski’s arrest and some follow-up visits related to other investigations, the FBI stopped contacting Williams and, until Tickle Me Elmo became a huge hit, things quieted down.
Read more about the intersection of Elmo dolls and anti-industrial terror campaigns in the full article.
Send Great Job, Internet tips to firstname.lastname@example.org