Frank Lowy’s son, Stanley Lowy, Non-Executive Chairman of Unicorn Darts, who spent his entire working life at Unicorn, talks us through his father’s story. Stanley outlines a brief history of Frank’s early life and details how the ‘Silver Comet’ came to market, changing the face of darts.
My father, Frank Lowy, was born in Budapest, Hungary in 1901. His father moved to America four years later to seek his fortune and he intended to call for his wife and the three children to join him when he was able to support them. His wife never heard from him again and with his father away, Frank grew up very impoverished in Hungary with just his mother to care for him and his two siblings.
During the First World War, he began an engineering apprenticeship which would later hold him in good stead, but by the end of the War there was no more work available, and he was forced to look elsewhere for employment. Frank was invited by a childhood friend’s father to work in a Patent Office. Soon after joining the Patent Agency, Frank began to realise that there was another way to make his mark in the company. He noticed that they would send and receive forms in English but that nobody in the office actually knew what they said, bar the parts they needed to take action on. Frank decided to take action of his own. He began taking English lessons, which he would pay for by taking what he learnt in his lesson, and using it to teach his own lesson to others for a fee. He later told me that if one of his students had a question that he couldn’t answer, he would reply by saying “that’s next week’s lesson!”. Ingenuity clearly ran deep.
He remained in Hungary until 1927, but due to his acquisition of the English language, another work opportunity arose. A client of the Patent Office had an invention which concerned refractory material used to line furnaces. That client wanted to sell his invention in England, and so an agreement was reached for my father to be released on a sabbatical from the Patent Agency and sent to England as a sales agent for the refractory invention.
My father quickly decided that he wanted to settle in England. Post-war Hungary’s political climate had become incredibly unstable. In 1929, two years after my father went to England, my mother and infant sister joined him, and the family took up permanent residence in South London. I was born in England 3 years later. Sometime around 1931-2 the refractory project that brought him to England came to an end and he returned to his expertise in Intellectual Property, finding work as technical translator for patent offices in London. His multilingual abilities (he spoke 9 languages by the end of his life) allowed him to build an embryo practice from an office in Chancery Lane, the home of the Patent Agents profession.
A couple of years later, whilst on holiday in Devon he was introduced to the sport of darts, which to him was a strange and unknown pastime. He became interested enough that upon his return to London, he began to play darts with a neighbour in the hall of our home, even hanging a dartboard on the back of the front door to indulge in his new favourite game. However, he was not satisfied with the equipment available at the time and, being the inventive type, he set about to design ‘a better dart’. The problem, he believed was the primitive design of the darts, particularly when you consider that the entire game is based on precision. At the time, there were two types of darts available, the first of which was known as a French Dart, due to the country of origin. The body of the dart was made entirely of wood with a band made of lead to give it weight. The dart had a metal point inserted at one end and three or four turkey feathers stuck on at the other end to serve as flights. The alternative to the wooden dart was a dart with a brass barrel, fitted with a 7.5mm diameter piece of cane. The cane had a cross slotted in its end into which a folded paper flight was inserted. The cane was unprotected at its end, which led to a lot of ‘Robin Hooding’, whereby a player would throw a dart into the cane of another dart already in the board making the dart ‘no score’ as it was not in the board. In addition, often the paper flight would fall out as the dart was thrown and the dart would fall to the floor and also becoming a ‘no score’.
The ‘better dart’ my father created was made of metal, a brass barrel chromium plated and an aluminium slotted shaft to receive a vulcanised fibre flight. The shaft had a protective, streamlined cap screwed on its end to prevent the flight falling out in play. The whole dart was silver with a bright red flight. Due to his work in the Intellectual Property business, he quickly drafted and applied for a patent for his invention. The application date of the patent was 4th November 1937 and it has been convenient for us to take that as the date the business was founded.
However, my father did not have any manufacturing facilities, so he arranged for a contract engineering firm to manufacture his dart. He also arranged for a firm to make boxes and another to make the flights, both of which he designed. He then sent the boxes and flights to the engineering firm who assembled the finished product and delivered it to his office in Chancery Lane.
With the manufacturing sorted, he needed a name which combined the look of the dart and the way in which, when thrown, it flew through the air like a missile to the dartboard. He hit upon ‘Silver Comet’ for a name and sought to register the name as a Trademark. Unfortunately, he discovered that it was already registered and owned by John Wisden & Co Limited. Frank contacted Wisden, who asked what he wished to use ‘Silver Comet’ for. Upon discovering that my father wanted it for the name of his new dart, Wisden & Co decided that it did not conflict with its original use for the name on a tennis racket. Having inspected the product, Wisden enquired how Frank intended to bring the Silver Comet to market and immediately offered to act as distributor as Wisden already had distribution facilities and a sales team calling on sports shops. Frank accepted the offer, and a sole distribution agreement was put in place. He sold a set to Wisden for one shilling (5p) Wisden charged its customers one shilling and sixpence (7.5p) and the shop retailed the set for two shillings and six pence (12.5p). Three darts could, at the time, be purchased for sixpence (2.5p). And so, the Silver Comet dart came into being. It was an immediate success and substantial sales followed. However, despite many customers finding it the right weight for them, some found it too heavy and others too light. Frank decided that the solution was to call the original dart ‘Medium’ and to add ‘Light’ and ‘Heavy’ versions to his range.
Despite the success of the Silver Comet, in late 1938 Wisden & Co got into financial difficulties and the distribution agreement with Wisden came to an end. My father decided to take on a former Wisden salesman and they began selling direct to the retail sports trade under the business name ‘Frank Lowy’. The original box for the Silver Comet bore the Royal Coat of Arms as Wisden & Co held the Royal Warrant for the supply of sports equipment to King George V. When the Wisden agreement ended my father was clearly not entitled to continue displaying the Royal Coat of Arms, but he felt that the box needed a symbol or trademark to balance and provide continuity to the box design. Gazing at the Royal Coat of Arms, my father’s eyes arrived on the Unicorn, with its customary single horn. In his eyes, the horn symbolically suggested the point of a dart barrel. He commissioned an artist to sketch several Unicorns and took the features from a number of the sketches for the final design. From that moment, he decided to adopt Unicorn as a trademark.