This Week: Anniversary of the Patent Behind the Operation Game

This week marks the anniversary of the patent that would become a wildly popular “wacky doctor’s game”—yet the inventor would not enjoy most of the monetary success of his idea.


For over 50 years, the Operation game has inspired budding physicians and helped hone their fine motor skills. It challenges players to perform surgery on a patient—rather morbidly named Cavity Sam—with a pair of wired metal tweezers. Each player must remove body parts from a series of twelve holes in Sam’s body without touching with the metal sides of a cavity, or else be penalized by a disappointing buzzer.


The concept behind Operation was created in the early 1960s by an industrial design student at the University of Illinois, John Spinello. He prototyped an electrified 10×10-inch box that incorporated a 12-volt lantern battery and 6-volt bell.

Through a family connection at the famed toy design firm, Marvin Glass & Associates in Chicago, Spinello sold his creation for $500—along with any future royalties. Glass subsequently filed for a patent for a “Game Utilizing Electric Probe” on February 4, 1965, and U.S. Patent #3,333,846 was granted on August 1, 1967. The game’s original theme had nothing to do with medicine, and Cavity Sam had not been born yet.

Although never released, Death Valley was designed for players to navigate through an electrically charged game board using a metal probe, avoiding such perils as gunfire, rattlesnakes, and mirages.


The game was soon licensed to Milton Bradley, which maintained the concept but changed everything else, resulting in the operating-table game that would become a franchise for the company.

The first Operation game was released in 1965. Hasbro eventually acquired Milton Bradley, along with the rights to Operation. The game’s continued popularity has led to a series of spin-offs, including versions themed after movie and television shows, as well as an abundance of licensed merchandise.


For an engrossing story about Spinello and the impact his idea had on the lives of millions of people, watch the 2017 documentary OPERATION: Operation The Power of Play from toy industry veterans, Peggy Brown and Tim Walsh.

Todd Coopee is Editor-in-Chief of Toy Tales, an online publication that covers toys and games past and present.

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