A look back at the history of Zebco reels

Column by Larry LaGrange

Are the Chinese the first to do everything? Maybe so. It seems that the Song Dynasty fishermen developed something like a fishing reel. An illustration from 1195 shows an angler in a boat using an apparatus with line that peeled off for a cast.

Fishing reels in England appeared about 1650, and reels using gears were available there around 1760. The first popular American reels were in use by the 1820’s.

In my last column I related how, like most every American neophyte fisherman, I began fishing using a Zebco. These push button reels made the backlash, the headache of the baitcast reel, mostly obsolete. Millions of these reels have been bought and are continuing to be used today. I’ve owned several over the years. Success stories of how fishing products and companies came about interest me, so I hope you’ll enjoy this one about the origin of the covered spincast reel.

My information comes from a newspaper article by Debbie Jackson in the Sunday Tulsa World. R.D. Hull was a watchmaker and fisherman from west Texas. He began tinkering with ways to improve the casting reel, which was well known for backlashing, causing the aggravating “bird’s nest.” The story goes that Hull got the idea one day in 1945 as he watched a grocery clerk smoothly peel packaging cord off the end of a spool, without the cord tangling from overspin. The packaging cord was coming out of a covered spool.

Author Jackson referred to a previous Tulsa World reporter who had interviewed Hull in 1975. “The most important new idea I came up with,” Hull said, “concerned putting the cover on the reel. That was the big problem —how to keep that line from spilling off the spool.”

After tinkering a good bit, in 1948 Hull took the big leap. He quit his job and with his family went looking for a company to produce his new concept reel. I’m pretty sure his wife thought he was nuts to leave a secure job.

Since 1932, the Zero Hour Bomb Company had made a single item — an electric time bomb for fracturing oil wells. As their patent was expiring, they were looking for a new product. Hull walked into the company’s office with a strange concoction of plywood, nails, a coffee can lid, and a long screw. He explained to management that these materials could be transformed into a revolutionary fishing reel. Employee Charlie Noble was tasked with trying to figure out if this thing could work. After considerable trial and error, he and R. D. succeeded.

Hull, hired to work for the company for $500 a month, and Charlie kept at it. In May 1949, the first 50 handmade, closed faced fishing reels, called the “Standard,” rolled off the line. R.D. and crew kept inventing new and improved versions of his reel until he retired as vice president of research and development in 1977. He said he listened to fishermen to see what they were looking for, then sketched designs to turn over to machinists.

The bomb business was phased out in 1954, about the time the Zebco 33 was introduced, selling for $19.50. It was a revolutionary concept that launched a major fishing tackle brand.

In 1956, the company sent President Dwight Eisenhower one of its new reels. Secret Service agents saw the words “Zero Hour Bomb Company” on the package, threw it into a tub of water, and called the bomb squad.

Shortly thereafter, the company officially became Zebco, a somewhat less threatening name. Hull continued to fish every day that he could at a private lake near Tulsa where he lived with his wife in a house shaped like...a covered spincast reel. He was inducted into the Sporting Goods Hall of Fame in 1975 and passed away in 1977.

What goes around, comes around. Zebcos, along with Abu Garcia and Shakespeare reels, are now made in China. But quality can still be had. According to one spincast review, the ZO3Pro is the best of the bunch. It sells for around $65, considerably less than most baitcasters. Seven bearings, a 3.4:1 gear ratio and a triple cam drag system make this a top-notch product.

Hope you’re enjoying the warm weather and the great fish and wildlife bounty that the Creator has given us.

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