The History Of The Notorious Pet Rock (And The Inventor Who Became A Millionaire)

Los Gatos, California: Gary Dahl, 39, creator of the 'Pet Rock,' one of the best selling novelty items this Christmas season, gets ready to pack the 1,000,000th Pet Rock sold to date. (Getty Images)

In the history of fads and crazes, there is nothing to rival the Pet Rock's inexplicable popularity. It was a smooth rock, sold in a cardboard box, and it made inventor Gary Dahl a millionaire. And ever since, the history of the Pet Rock has been the classic example of a dumb idea that paid off. It's a cliche suitable for any cocktail-party conversation about money -- Anyone can get rich, all you have to do is invent the next Pet Rock

(You may remember a version of this chat from the film Office Space.)

But what was the Pet Rock's appeal? Why did people buy this thing? And what of the man who invented the Pet Rock, advertising copywriter Gary Dahl -- why did fate smile upon him and his so-stupid-it's-brilliant idea?

It's hardly surprising that the Pet Rock was dreamed up over a few drinks at a bar. As the story goes, Dahl was out with friends one night in the mid-'70s, and the conversation turned to pets -- specifically, the hassles of feeding and caring for them. Dahl jokingly bragged that he had a pet that required no care or attention of any kind, because it was a rock. 

Though Dahl has been portrayed as a "freelance copywriter," he later admitted the job title is "another word for being broke." Desperation and a knack for packaging, it turned out, was a profitable combination. Dahl managed to convince some investors that with the right presentation, unremarkable Mexican rocks (bought at a hardware store for about a penny apiece) could become the ultimate gag gift.

The history of the Pet Rock isn't about the rock -- the whole fad was never about the rock. If plain-old rocks had suddenly become popular, people would have flocked to beaches and streams to find their own, for free. But Pet Rocks were different, simply because of their packaging and the mock-seriousness with which their inventor presented them to the public. Gary Dahl's sense of humor struck a chord with a lot of people at a particular moment in time. On more than one occasion, he said that two feelings in the zeitgeist made the public receptive to his invention: a prevailing boredom, and a need for absurd, understated in-joke.

"People are so damn bored, tired of all their problems," he told People magazine in 1975. "You might say we’ve packaged a sense of humor."

The year 1975 was the big one for the smiling, bearded Dahl and his Pet Rock. The gimmick was introduced in August, in San Francisco. It was the sort of quirky news story -- not exactly man bites dog, but man sells rocks -- that would thrive in the media of the day, which included everything from articles in local newspapers to an appearance on The Tonight Show. In today's terms, the Pet Rock "went viral," riding a tide of publicity during the fall of 1975 through the Christmas season, when it was the year's hottest seller.

Its rapid rise to ubiquity wasn't the only reason why the Pet Rock became the king of all fads. The history of the Pet Rock also includes a steep fall from grace in 1976. It went from must-have to meh.