Meet Wayne Fromm, The Man Behind The Selfie Stick
Originally published on Slant.
Wayne Fromm decided to invent the handheld monopod for the same reason he had decided to invent countless other things: because it seemed like magic.
While Wayne was vacationing with his daughter, Sage, in Europe, the two were faced with a fairly typical tourist's conundrum. They were admiring the views on the Ponte Vecchio, a crowded bridge in Florence, and really wanted to get a picture together.
They scanned the crowd for an acceptable photographer. Hopefully someone with a camera around their neck, so maybe they understood how to take a good picture. Someone who didn't seem too sketchy, so there was no risk that Wayne's camera would be stolen. Maybe someone who looked like they might understand English, since Wayne and Sage were Canadian. Someone who hadn't just applied sunscreen, so their hands weren't slippery and likely to drop the camera. For something that should've been so fun — capturing a memory together — there was so much needless stress attached.
"That’s when I came up with the idea," Wayne told Slant. "I thought, what if there was a way to have something really lightweight? Something really portable. Something really strong."
What if, wherever you went, you could document your experiences, without needing to fumble with your Italian or rest your camera precariously on a ledge while you awaited the automatic shutter? What if, when trying to capture the moments that make up your life, the photographer could be invisible?
This was before the hashtag or the duckface. This was before millions of people had high-definition cameras in their pockets that were connected to the internet. This was when people would ask celebrities "Can I have your autograph?" not "Let me take a selfie?"
If you ask Wayne, he'll tell you he wasn't trying to invent something that would spawn countless think pieces or change the world. He was just trying to solve a problem and follow his intuition down a rabbit hole that was responsible for so many other prior inventions. The result of Wayne's curiosity, imagination and determination to create "the ultimate travel accessory for photographers" culminated in the Quik Pod, or what we know as the patented selfie stick.
Before Selfies Were Selfies
While Oxford Dictionaries traces the term "selfie" back to 2002, the idea goes back much further.
Unsurprisingly, the style originates with the self-portrait. While artists have been making self-portraits for thousands of years, it wasn't until the early Renaissance that we began to see the form become prevalent.
The self-portrait was rarely a hyper-realistic rendering of how the artist actually looked. The subtext — how the artist saw him or herself — was often the most important aspect of the work. Many of the greats had self portraits: Van Eyck, Durer, Velazquez, Da Vinci, Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Kahlo, Matisse.
But art critics are quick to distance the high form of self-portraiture from the lesser, stigmatized "selfie."
Selfies, unlike self-portraits, typically refer to photography. The first selfie is thought to be of Robert Cornelius, an early photography enthusiast who, in 1839, set up a camera in the back of his Philadelphia family store and snapped a picture of himself.
The first selfie stick patent (for a "telescopic extender for supporting compact camera") was filed almost 150 years later in 1984 by Hiroshi Ueda and Yujiro Mima. Ueda, who was working for the camera company Minolta when he came up with the idea, held the patent until 2003 when it ran out.
But it never really caught on. In fact, the early selfie stick was so unnecessary at the time that it was deemed "chindogu" (or "almost completely useless, but not quite") and included alongside "dust slippers for cats" and a suit for taking a bath without getting wet in a book titled "101 Unuseless Japanese Inventions." Ueda refers to his idea for a selfie stick as a "3 a.m. invention," meaning that it was a great idea that just came a little too early. Thus, most people lived their lives unaware that such a thing existed, including a man on the other side of the world named Wayne Fromm.
If you grew up in the last 25 years, the chances are good that you've played with at least one of the many toys that Wayne has invented.
Disney Bubble Pendants. The Beauty and The Beast Talk and View Mirror. The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers Room Defender. Tie-Dye Doodle Bear. Aladdin's Magic Lamp. The Nesquik Magic Milkshake Maker. The list goes on and on.
Wayne became a go-to guy in the industry and extremely successful toy inventor. Studios were sending him advance scripts of movies to make exclusive toys. He was behind Crazy Bones, which was a huge 90s fad. Charles Lazarus, the founder of Toys "R" Us, said that Fromm's Doodle Mover was one of the best toys he had ever seen in his life.
He came up with the ideas for almost all of these toys thanks to his greatest inspiration: his daughter. As Sage grew up, Wayne's toys grew up along with her. It only makes sense that Fromm's most famous invention, the Quik Pod, would come as the result of traveling with Sage.
Upon returning from the European vacation, he got right to figuring out how to design the perfect selfie stick. He started studying anything that was extendable, like umbrellas, car antennas and radio antennas. But none of these had a groove in them, which meant that a camera on the end would spin upside down.
When Quik Pod in the early design stages, Wayne had a checklist for what his invention would become. It had to be lightweight. It had to be waterproof. It had to get through airport security. It had to be a monopod, meaning it could be set up on the ground as well as held in the air.
Wayne went through over 100 prototypes and hundreds of hours of tinkering and re-designing. He tortured tested the crap out of the Quik Pod prototypes, freezing and heating and blasting the sticks with salt and sand. He would run over them with tractors. He once traveled to the Dead Sea, took a sample of the water, replicated the salinity in his home, and submerged the Quik Pod. The bar was very high, so there was a lot of development.
While some might be quick to take away credit from Wayne for being the first true inventor of the selfie stick, he's confident in the reason why selfie sticks blew up all over the world.
"I know it’s popular today because of my work," said Wayne.
From Novelty to Next Big Thing
Once he felt the Quik Pod was ready, Wayne rushed to production, filed for a patent, and began traveling with his invention all over the world. It was 2005. He visited countless trade shows, executed thousands of in-store demonstrations, and hawked the Quik Pod on television, several times selling out the product on networks like QVC.
But this was before the dawn of everyone having a smartphone. While the Quik Pod was beginning to attract a little buzz, it was still viewed more as a novelty than a game-changer. Wayne compares the Quik Pod to the first sunglasses.
"Years ago, some guy came out of a cave wearing seashells over his eyes and said, 'Wow, these work great, but they look stupid.'"
So Wayne kept hustling, making minor improvements and developing accessories, all while hoping that the Quik Pod would break through and take over the marketplace.
When Quik Pods started selling like gangbusters, and the selfie phenomenon was just taking off, Wayne ran into his first major snag: knockoffs.
While Wayne holds the patent for his technology in the United States, he can't necessarily prevent imitators from straight-up ripping him off left and right.
"You’d type in the name 'Quik Pod,'" Wayne said, "There would be dozens and dozens of factories that were using my images. And I did the original photoshoot for my packaging. So my daughter is in it, my niece is in it, the son of a friend is in it, I’m in it. So all of these pictures are being hijacked and used on all these knockoff factory websites."
Cheap knockoffs would haunt Wayne, seemingly following him wherever he traveled. He would see pictures of his daughter on knockoffs in the Frankfurt Airport. He would see pictures of himself at a Walgreens in Florida. It was frustrating.
"I’ve had meetings and letters of correspondence with anyone who was selling these products, but it was fruitless," said Fromm. Not much could be done and no one was willing to do much of anything."
But after a while, Wayne decided to just go with the flow and accept that his invention had become so ubiquitous that of course there would be imitators.
"It’s been embraced and recognized as a first class product. So I don’t really pay attention to the knockoffs. I feel flattered and respected," said Wayne. "I’ve created something that world uses and it’s made their travels better and safer."
Instead, Wayne would focus on three things: improving the Quik Pod brand, leading a holistic lifestyle (through hiking, tennis, and hot yoga) and spending as much time as he could with his daughter — and now business partner — Sage.
Life in the Age of the Selfie
Wayne spent so much time tweaking and promoting the Quik Pod that he barely had time to recognize when selfies hit their critical mass.
Selfie historians (a thin field) point to 2013 as the peak of the selfie phenomenon. By then, front-facing cameras on the smartphone were the new normal and Instagram, with over 150 million users and 1 billion "likes" per day, had become the de-facto home for amateur photography. "#Selfie" was perpetually trending on social media. Celebrities started latching on to the selfie craze and some people even became celebrities simply because they took so many selfies (looking at you, Kylie Jenner).
That year, Oxford Dictionaries declared that "selfie" was their Word of the Year, noting that "language research conducted by Oxford Dictionaries editors reveals that the frequency of the word selfie in the English language has increased by 17,000% since this time last year." Selfie narrowly beat out runners-up like "binge-watch," "bitcoin," and "twerk."
Just like Wayne had hoped, the selfie stick was becoming a hot commodity.
Matt Lauer took a Quik Pod on the Today Show. Ellen featured one on hers. Oprah threw the Quik Pod on her "O List." Snowboarder Jamie Anderson attached a GoPro to a Quikd Pod while boarding around the Sochi Olympics. Anderson Cooper used a Quik Pod for some of his reporting.
But with widespread popularity came polarizing opinions. As James Franco (an avid selfie-taker) eloquently proclaims in The Interview, "Haters gonna hate, and ain'ters gonna ain't."
This year, many public spaces began banning selfie sticks outright. Disney parks, the MoMA in NYC, the National Gallery Art in D.C., all 19 Smithsonian galleries and museums, the Art Institute of Chicago, the Getty Center in LA, Rome’s Colosseum, Brazilian soccer stadiums, the Palace at Versailles in France, the Kentucky Derby, Wimbledon, Lollapalooza, Coachella, and the Apple’s Worldwide Developers’ Conference all currently ban selfie sticks. It seems that more public spaces will follow suit.
Wayne supports the bans. "Whenever I would do demos, whether it was Las Vegas, Times Square, Europe, I would tell people that people aren’t always aware when they are in crowded, public spaces" he said. "So I would always say that you need to be careful and considerate of others."
Wayne's only hope is that institutions, specifically museums and art galleries, will be able to delineate between a selfie stick and a selfie stick that is also a monopod.
But beyond being a potential safety hazard, the most repeated criticism of selfie sticks is that they help perpetuate a culture of narcissism, which has already been reinforced by a generation that's obsessed with social media. We've all rolled our eyes at that friend who takes selfie after selfie and posts it to Instagram — unless we are that friend, and we continue to snap away, either oblivious or not caring what society thinks of the selfie habit.
Now, researchers are blaming the selfie for instilling in society a number of less desirable traits, like insecurity, shallowness, and vanity. While Wayne was just trying to provide something that he thought was useful and fun, it's clear now that his invention is tied up in so many more important conversations about identity, community, and the self.
For his part, Wayne doesn't believe the hype when it comes to narcissism.
"I know the things that people would often grab first if their home were on fire would be their photographs and home movies," said Wayne.
According to Wayne, lowering the barriers to entry for photography could have a profound impact on people as we look toward the future.
It's also important to note that, as a society, we are at the very beginning of widespread personal photography. The first generation iPhone was released in 2007. It wasn't until 2010 that iPhones featured front-facing cameras, which are optimal for capturing selfies. Many people criticized and misunderstood early photography. That's why you see so many stoic, ticked-off subjects in early photographs: everyone thought that smiling and mugging for the camera was a show of vanity.
It seems like society is just following in the footsteps of the past, being introduced to something different, misunderstanding its purpose, and all but condemning it as the source of issues that were ingrained long before it was introduced. And while we may scoff at those using the selfie stick "for evil" (I'm looking at you, Kylie Jenner), we gloss over all the amazing photographs and videos we've been able to capture thanks to technology like the selfie stick. Beyond using selfie sticks for extreme purposes, like skiing down an avalanche or rafting through white water rapids, selfie sticks are allowing every day people to produce a record of their important experiences.
"The fact that so many people are now taking pictures, that they’re documenting their life, means that people are going to be able to back," said Wayne. "They’re going to be able to see their childhood, see their parents. They’re going to try to understand some of the complexities of their life. So hopefully what I invented can help people untangle some of the mystery of their own life and of their ancestors’ lives."
Maybe we're just learning the power of the selfie stick and need a little patience to ride out all of these duckfaces.
The Next Game-Changer
Despite the whirlwind that the selfie stick has caused in Wayne's life, he happily reports that he still has plenty of time to invent and that, "there's been no slowdown in innovation."
When we talked, he clued me in to a new gadget that he was working to get finished by next year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "It's going to be a real game-changer for photography. It's fantastic." He was also working on about 25 other new products as well.
"Some people enjoy a good meal," Wayne told me. "I really enjoy being able to let my mind wander and invent new things. That's what I enjoy spending my time doing."
Cover photo courtesy of Wayne Fromm