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Happy Birthday, Milton Bradley, Father of the Modern Board Game

November 08, 2010
by Jennifer Ferris
Milton Bradley is a household name for his creation of such board game classics as The Game of Life, but he was more than just an inventor. His fascination with the process of learning, coupled with his skill at printing, made him a pioneer in the field of early childhood education as well.

Milton Bradley's Early Days

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Milton Bradley was born Nov. 8, 1836, in Vienna, Maine, but for the first few years of his life, Bradley’s parents moved often throughout New England, while his father worked a series of odd jobs. Eventually, the family settled in Lowell, Massachusetts.

While his father worked in a cotton mill, Bradley attended public school in Lowell, where he met George Tapley, the man who would eventually become his business partner. Bradley was a good student who went on to study drafting in Cambridge, Mass., but he dropped out when his parents decided to move to Connecticut.

Bradley's Notable Accomplishments

Bradley worked for several years as a mechanical draftsman and patent agent in Massachusetts. He was responsible for a well-received design of a fancy railroad car for the ruler of Egypt. After he was given a lithograph of that car as a gift, he became fascinated with the art of lithography, bought a used machine and went into business printing technical drawings for local businesses.

In 1860, Bradley printed out a few lithographs of presidential nominee Abraham Lincoln. These were so popular that orders came flooding in for more prints of the dapper, clean-faced Lincoln. By his inauguration, Lincoln decided to grow a beard and Bradley’s prints were obsolete. He turned his focus to his other interest: board games.

After playing an imported board game at a friend’s house, Bradley was inspired to create his own game, in which the player found success by moving through squares marked with various life events and ultimately achieving “Happy Old Age.” Bradley named it “The Checkered Game of Life.” Within its first year of printing, 40,000 copies were sold. (The modern version, “The Game of Life,” bears very little resemblance to the original.)

While producing sketches of weapons for local manufacturers, Bradley’s thoughts turned to Civil War soldiers left in the field for long periods without amusement. He produced kits of several games—chess, checkers, and others—in smaller, travel-size versions and sent them to Union troops. He also sold the kits to several businesses, and by 1864, he was successful enough to incorporate and take on partners.

His next few inventions were devices for displaying lithographs, utilizing a box that held rolls of pictures of historic scenes and a zoetrope-like device that, when spun, showed a figure in motion. He also published the first jigsaw puzzles for children, card games which quizzed on bible quotes and a croquet set with a patented set of standardized rules which are still essentially followed today.

The Rest of the Story

In 1869, Bradley developed in an interest in Friedrich Froebel’s German Kindergarten movement, which favored simplified learning for young children over the harsh methods of treating children as miniature adults—a standard in the educational settings of the day. By publishing a book by Edward Wiebe called “Paradise of Childhood,” Bradley established his company as an educational enterprise that later led to it being the leading purveyor of educational materials for American schools.

For Bradley, the Kindergarten movement was more than a business enterprise. He truly believed in its tenets and brought up his two daughters in its particular philosophy. He developed a series of “gifts” for young children that would teach them higher concepts such as division while they engaged in play. One of his lasting legacies is his method of teaching color: he designed a color wheel and wrote four books on color education for very young students.

Bradley died at the age of 74 on May 30, 1911, in Springfield, Mass. His company continued to produce games and puzzles until 1984; it was then acquired by the Hasbro Company, which continues to use the Milton Bradley name.
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