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Winning Inventions : A Thousand Oaks resident helped design the Game of Life and is still coming up with game ideas today.

December 12, 1991|ROBYN LOEWENTHAL | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Most people associate seasonal carols with holiday shopping. But for inventor Bill Markham, 74, the most beautiful music emanating from shopping malls is the sound of cash registers ringing up sales of his products.

Markham's best-known collaboration is the Game of Life, a popular family board game that he and others developed in 1960 for the centennial of Milton Bradley Co. The firm is the largest manufacturer of toys and games in the world, company spokesman Mark Morris said.

"The Game of Life," Morris said, "was a salute to the Checkered Game of Life, which put Milton Bradley, a Massachusetts lithographer, in the game business in 1860."

Bradley first became successful by printing a best-selling lithograph of a youthful, beardless Abraham Lincoln, Morris said. But the portraits became obsolete when Lincoln grew a beard. So the businessman designed a game to pay his bills. "The puritanical New England society frowned upon games as a frivolous waste of time," Morris said. "So Bradley excluded dice and cards. He just printed a checkerboard pattern on a sheet with sayings like "happiness," or observations in place of the black squares." Bradley sold his game in the more worldly New York City and became very successful.

Designed for players ages 9 and older, the modern Game of Life is more elaborate. "You buy insurance and real estate, get married, have children and make important decisions," Markham said. Each player starts out with a car and $1,000. The first person to reach the final space, called Millionaire Acres, wins the game.

"It simulates the ups and downs of the wheel of life," Markham said. "You can go to work right away. Or start slower by going to college and gain an advantage later on.

"The game is very popular in Japan," Markham said, "because they believe in the game's concept. If you work hard and go to school, you will eventually achieve success."

With more than 30 million copies sold in 18 languages, the Game of Life continues to be one of the company's best sellers. It is also, Morris said, part of the Smithsonian Institution's collection on family life and popular culture.

"In the last 32 years, I've invented about 50 toys and games," said Markham, who has a background in graphic design and advertising. "And I've sold them to Mattel, Hasbro, Milton Bradley and even Parker Bros., which makes Monopoly."

These days, the Thousand Oaks resident is still developing toys that children will probably enjoy for years to come. "I go to my Markham Concepts office in Westlake Village every day and work on ideas for toys and games," Markham said. At the moment, he is developing four projects, including a game called Busted.

"It's going to be better than Monopoly," said Markham's wife, Lorraine, 53. The game, which focuses on jail and the legal system, was inspired by her 23-year-old son's experience. "He loves cars and sometimes gets tickets," she said.

Ironically, despite Markham's interest in toys, he and his late wife of 43 years never had children to enjoy his creations. But, in keeping with the surprises of his Game of Life, Markham's second marriage in July made him the father of six grown children.

And when asked to name his favorite pastime, the toy inventor embraced his bride. "Here she is. This is my hobby."

SO YOU WANT TO BE AN INVENTOR

Anyone with an idea can become an inventor. Ventura County seniors who would like to turn a good notion into a useful or entertaining item might want to know about local resources available that can help get them started.

For the last 12 years, Ventura County has been home to the national headquarters of Inventors Workshop International (IWI). IWI can help beginners take an idea to mechanical or conceptual design and to the marketplace. The 20-year-old nonprofit education organization works with the U.S. Small Business Administration and members of the Service Corps of Retired Executives (SCORE) to provide free professional advice. IWI also sponsors the annual Great Ideas contest, publishes a national magazine called Invent!, produces a monthly national radio program and holds an annual national workshop for inventors and entrepreneurs.

To accommodate the diversity of designs, IWI has formed specialized chapters for eco-inventors, inventors of alternative vehicles and new health and medical products. Another group focuses on toys, games, novelty gifts and candies.

For information on IWI call, (805) 484-9786.

"The Inventor's Workshop" is broadcast nationally over the Business Radio Network on the first Sunday of each month at 5 p.m. Pacific time. To find a local affiliate that carries the program, call toll free (800) 321-2468.

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