A lifelong inventor whose creations ranged from high-tech defense weaponry devices to electrostatic printers, Mr. Howes built an impressive resume that will always be best known for the enormously popular toy that he fathered nearly a half century ago: the Easy-Bake Oven.
As director of research and new product development for Cincinnati-based Kenner Products in the early 1960s, Mr. Howes created what would become a household name and one of America’s most iconic toys by drawing inspiration from a Kenner salesman who had just made a trip to New York City.
Upon returning, the salesman wondered aloud whether Kenner could develop a toy version of the chestnut roasters seen on many New York City street corners.
With that remark, the proverbial light bulb clicked on over Mr. Howes’ head.
“He started thinking about that and wondering how to create a safe version of that for kids,” recalled Nancy Howes, his wife of 47 years, who met her future husband at Kenner.
Some of his experimentation was conducted in the Howes’ own kitchen before he and other Kenner engineers finally settled on the concept that made the idea both safe and practical by deciding to use a light bulb to heat the oven.
And the rest is toy industry history.
“Whenever someone brings up the subject, a woman always chimes in and says, ‘Oh, I had one of those,’/” his wife said. “Everybody’s heard of the Easy-Bake Oven.”
Mr. Howes, who lived in Anderson Township, died Tuesday. He was 83.
After his mother died when he was born, Mr. Howes was raised by a German grandmother and her American husband in Over-the-Rhine, where the family ran several corner grocery stores during the Depression.
Before entering kindergarten, he taught himself to read, displaying an insatiable curiosity and sharp intelligence that would shape his life.
He left Walnut Hills High School to join the Navy in World War II, with his grandfather helping him to “fib about his age” on the enlistment papers, Nancy Howes said.
After two years in the South Pacific, Mr. Howes returned to Cincinnati and received a degree at the University of Cincinnati, where he had started earning credits at night while still in high school.
At Kenner, one of Mr. Howes’ first jobs was to reformulate Play-Doh to remove some potentially dangerous chemicals in the colorful modeling compound, according to his son, Christopher Howes, of Anderson Township.
Mr. Howes also had a hand in creating a modern version of the Victorian era Spirograph, a toy in which children create swirling shapes and designs using a series of cogs and wheels into which a pencil can be inserted.
“He always had the coolest stuff on earth that I could mess around with,” such as phosphorescent powder he was testing for various glow-in-the-dark applications, his son said.
But Mr. Howes always realized that the Easy-Bake Oven was, in his son’s words, “the big one” in his career. About 20 million Easy-Bake Ovens have been sold since they went on the market in 1963.
“I think he’d rather be remembered for that and the other toys than some of the defense things, which were kind of grim compared to something that brought happiness to the world.” Christopher Howes said. “He had a fondness for the innocent, simple things in life.”
Over the years, Mr. Howes’ constant tinkering with possible new products was never confined to office hours.
“We no longer have a garage in our house – it’s a physics lab,” his wife said. “You can hardly walk around in it.”
As recently as last month, he still was tending to details related to his latest invention for the Defense Department.
A very spiritual man, Mr. Howes also was active in the Catholic Church, often teaching catechism classes.
In his later years, Mr. Howes sported a long, full white beard.
“Children did ask if he was Santa Claus on occasion,” Christopher Howes said. “If they only knew.”
In addition to his wife and son Christopher, Mr. Howes leaves five other children – Denise Payne of Auckland, New Zealand; Ronald Howes Jr. of Minneapolis; Andrew Howes, of Mount Carmel; Karen Meinor, of Withamsville, and James Howes, of Mount Washington. He also is survived by 14 grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial service will be held at 10 a.m. Monday at Immaculate Heart of Mary Church, 7820 Beechmont Ave., Anderson Township. Visitation will be at the church from 9 a.m. until the service.
Memorials may be made to the Comboni Mission Center, 1318 Nagel Road, Cincinnati, OH 45255, or the Franciscan Missionary Union, 1615 Vine St., Cincinnati, OH 45202.