The man who invented Operation: interview with John Spinello



2016-08-03 14:30:39

Few board games are as collected as Operation. Original 1965 versions sell for $500 - the same amount its creator, John Spinello, made from the game. But John isn't bitter. An astonishing moment from his past perhaps explains why.  

It's Tuesday July 27, 1976. 

And John is working at Chicago toy designer Marvin Glass Associates – his dream job. 

But that's about to change. 

Because at 9:55, John's colleague Albert Keller takes out a pistol and goes on a shooting spree at the company's offices. Three employees die. Several others are injured. Then Keller – 33, well liked and good at his job – turns the gun on himself. 

The original, and valuable 1965 version features

The original, and valuable, 1965 version 

It could have been the end for John.

"[Keller] looked me in the eye, and gave me a free pass," John, who escaped unharmed, remembers. 

That incident has given John, now 79, a different perspective on life from most. It's maybe why he refuses to be angry about missing out on Operation's millions. 

$40 million in sales

And most people would be angry. The phenomenon that is Operation – "the goofy game for dopey doctors" – has made $40 million in sales. 

In 1964, game designer Marvin Glass (creator of Mousetrap) gave John a $500 cheque (around $4,000 today) for the prototype and patent and sent him on his way. Even Glass' promise of a job for John didn't come through – John had to wait more than a decade to join the company. 

Spinello got an A for his class project - which would become Operation

John got an A for his class project - which would become Operation

"People ask me, do I resent Marvin Glass?" says John. 

"I don't. I've been rewarded by all the 'Dear John' letters, the people playing the game and the thousands of people inspired to become doctors because of it. I can't ask for more."

John received many of those letters in 2014. 


Fellow game designers Tim Walsh and Peggy Brown learnt John needed $25,000 to fund dental treatment. That was $25,000 John didn't have; he filed for bankruptcy in 2012 when his warehouse business went under. 

Walsh and Brown set up a crowdfunding campaign. The irony of the creator of Operation needing an operation captured the media's attention. John's plight moved hundreds of fans of Operation to contribute money. And write letters: some recounting how the game brought the family together, others detilaing how it inspired them to become surgeons.

John got his treatment. "People's kindness was unbelievable," he says.

Now a documentary on the story of John and his creation is in the works. It's a story worth telling. 

The prototype

"It was 1962. And I was studying at the industrial design school at the University of Illinois. We had to design a toy or game for the class," John remembers.

Memories of putting his finger in the power socket provided John with the inspiration for his prototype, which featured a series of holes and zigzag patterns through which to guide a metal pencil. 

The prototype that would become Operation

The prototype had far more "buzz" than the released version

John concedes the buzzer on the prototype was more vigorous than the version in the finished game. "I really wanted to give the kids a buzz," he says with relish.

John remembers Glass shouting "I love it, I love it" when John presented him with the game in his office two years later. "It was one of the first electro-magnetic games," John says in explaining Glass' positive reaction. "The buzzer really startled you."

Glass gave the game a name, Death Valley, and offered it to games giant Milton Bradley. "Death Valley didn't take off," recalls John. So Milton Bradley had a rethink, and came up with Operation – giving the patient a name, Cavity Sam, to lighten the mood, and sticking a buzzer on his nose for good measure. 

Global phenomenon

"My wife saw the game at one of the shopping centres."

That was the first time John realised his game was famous. 

Every new generation falls in love with Operation

Every new generation falls in love with Operation 

45 million sales later...

It has spawned countless special editions, including a Simpsons version, as well as a variety of merchandise. 

John owns much of it. 

"My daughter took up the chase. We've collected ties, pajamas, shirts. I have 30 versions of the game from around the world."


And John has another reason to be thankful for Operation. Doctor Andrew Goldstone, subconsciously using Operation as his inspiration, recently created a piece of thyroid surgery equipment that buzzes when you get too close to the vocal chords. John's daughter has undergone an operation using that very piece of equipment. 

"It's come full circle," says a clearly appreciative John. 

Appreciative is the word for John. He is thankful for what he has, not what he might have had.

"My reward is when I get to visit my grandchildren's school, and I get 300 or 400 kids lining up to meet me. Seeing kids playing the game and enjoying it is my reward."

The documentary on John Spinello's story comes out this year.

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2016-08-04 15:32:11

Fantastic interview. Really interesting to hear how these things come about!

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