We all know the game Operation in which the player must conduct surgery on a curious character named Cavity Sam. As the commercial goes, "It takes a very steady hand." But as sci-tech historian Allison Marsh writes in IEEE Spectrum, Operation evolved from a very different electrified game called Death Valley that was invented in the early 1960s by a University of Illinois industrial design student named John Spinello. From IEEE Spectrum:
Spinello's game, called Death Valley, didn't feature a patient, but rather a character lost in the desert. His canteen drained by a bullet hole, he wanders through ridiculous hazards in search of water. Players moved around the board, inserting their game piece—a metal probe—into holes of various sizes. The probe had to go in cleanly without touching the sides; otherwise it would complete a circuit and sound a buzzer. Spinello's professor gave him an A….
Spinello sold the idea to Marvin Glass and Associates, a Chicago-based toy design company, for US $500, his name on the U.S. patent (3,333,846), and the promise of a job, which never materialized.
Mel Taft, a game designer at Milton Bradley, saw a prototype of Death Valley and thought it had potential. His team tinkered with the idea but decided it would be more interesting if the players had to remove an object rather than insert a probe. They created a surgery-themed game, and Operation was born.