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Just Add Water | A Great Big Film

Sea-Monkeys became an icon in post-war America. Movies, television shows, magazines—Sea-Monkeys outgrew their tanks to become a staple in Americana. But the technicolor comic book ads and promises to change the way kids play barely scratch the surface of a murky past. The story of Sea-Monkeys involves Nazis, weapons and brine shrimp.

With the baby boom post-World War II, and the fact that all these new kids would need toys to play with, Harold von Braunhut set out to create the ultimate children’s dream: combining toys with pets. And what better way to do that than by introducing kids to the idea of instant life?

Scientifically, this is known as cryptobiosis, a state where metabolic activity in living things is slowed down to the point of unnoticeable life, until the creature is able to again use resources to actually live. It’s a process several animal and plant groups use—including brine shrimp, which were used mainly for pet food and bait at the time. See, brine shrimp use cryptobiosis to lay hundreds of eggs at a time during times of drought. These eggs are able to survive incredible periods of time until resources become available again and they’re ready to hatch … or ready to mesmerize children under the guise of instant life.

Which, to be fair, von Braunhut never really lied about. Sure, he may have enhanced a few details when he advertised what Sea-Monkeys were capable of doing (thanks, in part, to Joe Orlando, who created the iconic ad illustrations of Sea-Monkeys and who would later go on to become vice president at DC Comics), but brine shrimp really were performing a type of instant life. And while not everyone may have been blown away by the reality of Sea-Monkeys, they still have found their place in history and pop culture.

However, von Braunhut had his own interesting past. Like many entrepreneurs, he created several patents and inventions. He also held an array of other positions—everything from racing motorcycles to managing entertainers. But von Braunhut was an active member of an anti-Semitic white supremacist group. After his success with Sea-Monkeys, von Braunhut set out to create his next business selling a “Kiyoga spring whip”—a retractable baton meant to be used as a weapon. All the profits of this whip were donated to the Aryan nation. In a twist, von Braunhut, himself, was found to be born from a Jewish family as Harold Nathan Braunhut; he added the “von” when he was older to distance himself from his Jewish heritage.

In 2003, von Braunhut died after a fall, just a year after he applied for his final patent: an aquarium watch for kids to be able to take their pet Sea-Monkeys on the go.

This Great Big Film was made in collaboration with our friends at CNN Films.

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