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Decoder rings were all the rage during the golden age of radio. It lent an air of participation and physicality to the proceedings of shows like LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE and CAPTAIN MIDNIGHT.

So decoder rings were nothing new when Hoverboy: Agent of Danger! began broadcasting in 1937. Competition was stiff, and in it's first year rating were routinely low. The sponsor for the show, popular lighting fixture manufacturer "Dinky's Winkies" threatened to pull out. They did manage to keep the show going, and in 1938 came up with a marketing plan to increase their audience- and the Hoverboy decoder ring was born. But that wasn't all. Most of the existing radio shows had some sort of send-away premium, but the producers of Hoverboy went one step further, promising that you would be able to win fabulous prizes if you were able to decode the message at the end of each show! Bikes, baseball gloves, and BB guns were all up for grabs.


And so it was that kids enthusiastically started listening to the Hoverboy radio show, and sent the $1.00 to receive the ring in the mail!

Kids were instructed to write down a series of numbers and decode them into the message, if they thought they had deciphered the message correctly, they would send 50¢ and their answer to the producers to claim their prize... which would never come. It was a pretty horrible scam which the producers never seem to have gotten caught over. No one can say for sure if there were any prizes handed out, but in this excerpt from RADIO'S GOLDEN YEARS fanzine in the 1970's, radio actress Donna Spritz confessed this much to the interviewer,

"Don and Sam were horrible to work for. They were always late with checks and very lurid around me. People don't know this, but besides being the female lead, I did the children's voices on the show as well. It's a common practice in radio, even today. Well, at the end of every Hoverboy show a child came on who has won a price the week before for decoding the secret message on their pin or ring or whatever. Well, there was never any kids in the studio. I did them all."

So besides the non-existent prizes, kids were also out 50¢ every time they wanted to enter.

There are a number of interesting things about the varying incarnations of the Hoverboy decoder ring. Mine from 1940 is noted for having absolutely no moving parts. It was cheaper to make that way, I'd imagine. Around the ring are two concentric circles containing a standard number-letter cipher. Except that there are only 25 numbers for the 26 letters of the alphabet, so exactly what number corresponds to what letter gets a little fuzzy from V to Y. The engraving is also very small and light, making reading the corresponding numbers and letter very difficult without a magnifying glass. Unsubstantiated reports have children damaging their vision permanently due to eye strain.

I have only seen 1 of the other 5 rings known to exist. I'm hoping to get the owner to send me a picture soon.


All images copyright Marcus Moore