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    Follow the Stories | Honolulu, Hawaii (2007)

    Who Is Hiller?


    Posted: 12.29.2006

    Gary Sohmers with ray gun

    Gary Sohmers picked out this toy ray gun made by Stanley Hiller Jr. at the Honolulu ANTIQUES ROADSHOW.

    Stanley Hiller Jr.

    Stanley Hiller Jr. was one of the giants of 20th-century helicopter history.

    Close-up of ray gun

    Metal ray guns, like this one produced by Hiller, would give way to plastic ones in the 1950s.

    Ray gun box

    This ray gun box isn't the most elegant piece of advertising, but it's in great condition.


    This one-person "Hiller-Copter" was cool, but few were ever made.

    At the ANTIQUES ROADSHOW in Honolulu, a man walked in with an aluminum toy ray gun — unloaded, of course. The water pistol was called the Hiller Atom Ray Gun and was made in 1948, part of the wave of the post-World War II toy space guns that sparked, glowed, clicked, or shot water. But in the short time appraiser Gary Sohmers had before the videotaping of his on-air appraisal, he wasn't able to pin down exactly who Hiller was.

    "We believe that Hiller was a plumbing supply company," Sohmers told the owner. "And at Christmas time in '47 or '48, they decided they needed to make something with all their spare parts. How were they going to do that? They came up with this fabulous gun."

    A Child Inventor
    It turns out that Hiller was Stanley Hiller, Jr. and he wasn't in the plumbing business, but the inventing business. He was one of the American giants in the field of flight technology. Before Hiller reached the age of ten his father had taught him how to fly an airplane. He liked to build model airplanes and so began his inventing career. But after too many crashes, he turned his energies to model racing cars, creating the "Comet," which, tied to a pole on a tether, raced in circles at speeds of up to 60 miles an hour.

    More on the maker of a toy ray gun that turned up in Honolulu

    Hiller employed local boys to build the little racing machines in a backyard shop and sold them at a local department store. By the age of 17, he was cranking out 350 model cars a month, which brought in $100,000 a year.

    A Teenage Businessman
    Hiller was once asked how he had achieved so much at such a young age. His reply: "I was fortunate in my choice of a father." Hiller, Sr. was also an inventor and he assisted his son with the invention of a die-casting machine that used a cooling process that increased the strength of aluminum castings.

    While still a teenager, Hiller was overseeing seven casting machines that made spare aluminum parts for World War II fighter planes. He oversaw two shifts of employees and a payroll of $300,000 a year.

    Transition to Consumer Products
    One of the skills that separated Hiller from many inventors was his business acumen. When he saw that World War II was coming to an end, Hiller spent his spare time finding ways to use his die-casting machines to make kitchen utensils. And in 1947 and 1948 he launched another project — the cool-looking aluminum Atom Ray Gun, marketed in aluminum or painted red. The advertising on the pistol's packaging promoted it as a water gun "that shoots 50 times without reloading!" Justin Pinchot, an expert on toy ray guns, said Hiller's design stood out from the competitive field of ray guns in the post-war era. "It has a very delicate trigger," Pinchot says, "and has the tank on top, which is an unusual design for a water gun."

    Willie Turner, vice president of operations at the Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California, which Hiller founded, has always been impressed with how prolific an inventor Hiller was. "He had plans for a flying jeep, a flying submarine," Turner says. "If something didn't sell, he moved on."

    A Love of Helicopters
    Hiller eventually made his name with innovations for helicopters and became one of the big four helicopter inventors alongside Larry Bell, Igor Sikorsky, and Frank Piasecki. He invented co-axial rotor design, which gave stability to helicopters without the need of tail rotors, reducing the weight and drag that tail rotors caused. Hiller was also the first person to fly a helicopter on the West Coast and his little co-axial XH-44 "Hiller-Copter" earned a home in the Smithsonian Institution. His UH-23 was used by Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) units in the Korean War to transport wounded soldiers.

    Hiller also developed futuristic designs, such as the Rotorcycle, a miniature helicopter designed in 1957 that could be dropped to felled pilots behind enemy lines and assembled in minutes. His flying platform, designed in the mid-1950s, looks like it came out of a Buck Rogers movie.

    The helicopter business was a crowded field, though, and Hiller left it in the late 1960s to launch the Hiller Investment Company, a management consultant firm that specialized in non-hostile takeovers of companies that were faltering. "He became a millionaire a couple of times over," says Turner. In 2002, Hiller earned the Smithsonian's Lifetime Achievement Award. He died on April 20, 2006, at age 81.

    See the Honolulu, Hawaii (2007) page for a list of all appraisals from this city.

    For more information about Stanley Hiller, Jr. and toy ray guns, see:
    Hiller Aviation Museum in San Carlos, California at
    Justin Pinchot's Toy Ray Gun Web site at
    Zap! Ray Gun Classics, by Leslie Singer. Chronicle Books, 1991.
    Ray Gun, by Eugene W. Metcalf and Frank Maresca. Fotofolio Inc., 1999.

    More ANTIQUES ROADSHOW articles from the Toys & Games category:
    "Only Angels Have Wings": A Model Performance (Las Vegas, 2008)

    Dennis Gaffney is a freelance writer in Albany, New York. He has been a contributor to Antiques Roadshow Online since 1998.

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