Henry Orenstein

I’m going to tell you a story. It jumps around a little, to future and past, and it has a big twist in it that I’m going to need you to trust me on. Because of that, the fold – and content warning – is coming later than you’d expect.

This story, started, for me, on the Transformers wiki.

This is a Rubsign. It’s a small piece of plastic that’s heat-reactive. When Transformers started out as a brand, there was an immediate push to make cheap knockoff toys with similar ideas. In order to ‘protect’ the brand and ensure kids only wanted to buy the genuine Transformers, they developed something that they could pretend was part of the play pattern: a small symbol on the robot’s body that had the silhouette of either the Decepticon or Autobot faction, and you wouldn’t know for sure if you didn’t heat it up, usually as a child, by rubbing it with your finger.

Transformers, and their gimmick of ‘transforming’, is essentially, open source. You can’t copyright it or even copyright the techniques of a mould. This is one of the reasons there’s so many knockoffs of those toys — the actual technique of a transforming toy is pretty much uncopyriteable method.

The rubsigns, however, were made with patented technology; not only weren’t other people allowed to put them on their toys, but even worse, they simply couldn’t make them because the method for their creation was proprietary. What I thought as a child was a clever way to represent a disguise, for a moment of tension in the narrative, was really just a corporate control collar, a thing that meant they could draw a hard line between their version of the idea and the other, shitty ones, so I could ensure my collection of second hand transforming robot toys was properly branded.

Rubsigns are a cop is what I’m saying.

But, they had to be invented.

This is Henry Orenstein. Learning about the origin of the rubsign meant learning that to my surprise, the patent for them is not held by The company per se, but is instead partially owned by Hasbro, and partially owned by this one dude, Henry Orenstein.

When I found his name in the Transformers wiki, the wiki stated, perhaps boldly: His life is more interesting than Transformers.

Bold claim.

This is professional Poker. It’s a well known game that involves players playing for extremely large sums of money, often with similarly large sums of money involved in the buy-in. It’s grown in popularity over the past twenty years, in part because of improvements in presenting the game to an audience. Back in 1995, a patent was filed for a device known as a hole camera, which let the broadcasters collect the information about the players’ hands without doing anything that disrupted the natural flow of the game. The hole camera was used in 1999, and that’s about when poker started to pick up in public discourse.

And the patent for the earliest hole camera (which isn’t used much any more) is to a guy named Henry Orenstein. So important was this – and his winnings and his achievements lifetime – that he’s been inducted into the Poker Hall of Fame.

This is a Johnny Seven OMA, which were made by Topper Toys. And that’s a company Henry Orenstein founded to make his toys after being annoyed at how expensive dolls and toy guns were for poor kids. Topper Toys eventually folded into another brand, Deluxe Reading, which I understand if you are a hardcore toy collector, really into things like barbie accessories and cross compatibility, is very important to the hobby.

This background was how Henry got the attention of Hasbro, and wound up working with them on acquiring new toy properties. That meant he was in position to be in Japan, looking at Takara and Microchange toys, and come back with the idea of acquiring both toy sets, and rebranding them as Transformers in 1980.

Interesting dude, right? He should write a memoir.

Except he did already:

And now, when we jump back in the story, I have to say: Content Warning: Nazis.

Henry Orenstein was born Henryk Orenstein, one of five Jewish children to a Polish family, born in Hrubieszów, Poland, 1923. That is to say, when he was 16 years old, the Nazis invaded and occupied his country. This was obviously not ideal, and the Orensteins first hid themselves in their house through secret passages and hidden chambers between the walls. When the food and water ran out, the parents made the painful decision to surrender to arrest, in the hopes of keeping their children alive.

Henryk’s parents were taken, shipped to a camp, and shot. The children were then sent to a camp, where Henryk dedicated a plan to keeping moving. If they were being moved around, transferred from thing to thing, if the person in charge of them was different from time to time, nobody would have the time to really make a protracted plan to execute them. That, hypothetically, was the idea. This meant that he and his siblings were in five different concentration camp – including the camp run by Amon Goeth, the villain of Schindler’s List.

They end up in the camp in Budzyń. A few days after arrival, a report comes over the loudspeaker that ‘Any Jews with math or science training must report to front office,’ and Henryk signs himself and his brothers up.

… they did not have math or science training

See, as things were Getting Worse towards the end of the war, the Germans were trying to maximise the resources they did have. This is part of the grouping of things you’d possibly hear as the wunderwaffe — the preposterous weapons of the later days of Hitler’s aspirations. You may know these as a sequence of History Channel tv ads, like Hitler’s Greatest Tanks or Superboats or The Cannon That Shoots Time Frozen Chunks Of Hitler’s Future Brain or whatever. Nowadays, wunderwaffe is a German word primarily used sarcastically,  in case you’re curious. The Nazis were desperate, because they were a bunch of sucky losers who couldn’t make anything good on their own —

And never did

— they instead tried to turn their prisoners to the task of solving their problems with the finest of Nazi Bullshit Magic. At this point, Henryk is maybe nineteen years old, and he and his brothers are signed up to the camp’s equivalent of the Shed they dump the A-Team in. The scientists in charge of the lab are scared: if this fails, they’re just wasting manpower, and while the Jewish subordinates may fail, if they fail, they’re going to get shipped to the front and treated like meaty bullet catchers.

Henryk, recognising the situation, proceeded to run cons on the Nazis with his brothers.

They made bullshit devices that wouldn’t work, but did look like they worked. They stole from the labs. They crafted things that could be faked to working but wouldn’t work for real. They entertained the scientists with the finest of hokum. And then the researchers, full of relief that they wouldn’t become a statistic on a Soviet soldier’s bayonet, started to talk about how great their progress was of Doing Science At Shit to their command.

Command released an order to demand that these Jewish Science Wizards produce a tank paralysing gas.

Which was a problem.

Look, the Nazis were fond of demanding things that couldn’t be done. Then they could shout at their subordinates who were fucking up, or they’d deliver and you looked great. Again, this is not an environment for refined science, this is a shrinking circular firing squad where everyone is trying to just not be the next person shot. But nonetheless, Tank Paralysing Gas was demanded.

Henryk and his brothers did what they could, they made something they assured the Nazis would work, and the scientists, sweating bullets, sent it off to another base to be tested.

Where it didn’t work.


Okay, so now for a moment, consider the situation. Consider what this looks like. These scientists have sent a giant pile of reports about how great a job they were doing, and there’s a big trapdoor labelled Actual Bullets on it underneath them. They just put together their wunderwaffe and sent it off to be tested, and it didn’t work, so what do they do?

Blame the prisoners?

Uh, that’s going to go poorly, because they were saying the prisoners were doing a great job just a few days ago.

Come clean?

Fuck off.

Okay, so what else do they have as an option? Well, they did the only thing a fascist can do. They posted through it, Nazi style.

They sent infuriated reports to the other camp. WHAT DID YOU DO TO OUR TANK-PARALYSING GAS THAT MADE IT NOT WORK!?

And… you can see how this goes.

Right now, nobody wants to be the person who admits something is wrong. Nobody wants to be the person who pulls the circle of who gets shot even closer. You don’t want to tell your superiors you fucked up handling the Tank Paralysing Gas, or if you made the Tank Paralysing Gas, you don’t want to tell them that the Tank Paralysing Gas didn’t work.

And so back and forth they go. Testing things that won’t work and demanding ever-increasing test protocols to try and make it the other person’s problem. I don’t have proof of it, but some accounts of the story include the two camps getting infrastructure projects like new roads to make sure the transport of the Tank Paralysing Gas works and is good and proper and anyway, the war ended before they got this resolved.

But there is paperwork, recovered during the fall of Berlin, with Heinrich Himmler’s signature on it, ordering the mass production of the Tank Paralysing Gas made by Henryk and his younger brothers.

“The whole tale about the scam they pulled on the nazis is… instructive, too”