Great Balls of Light
By Meg Torbert
Nelson "Corky" Newcomb Jr. '72 didn't really intend to become an inventor of zany sporting goods and the writer of outrageous puns. He meant to be a hotel administrator like his parents, who ran a resort for many years in Wolfeboro, N.H. But somewhere on the way to a quiet, sane life, Newcomb took a detour. It began in 1972 when he visited a Civil War battlefield in Richmond, Va., where his great-great-grandfather was killed. Looking down at the ground, Newcomb saw bullets scattered about -- and entrepreneurial possibilities. Soon he had a large crew digging up nearly half a million Civil War bullets in the Richmond area, which he sold in paperweights and letter openers to Nieman Marcus. It was his first taste of what he calls "the fever," the excitement of taking an idea and seeing it through to a marketable product.
For a few years, Newcomb worked at a Dallas hotel, but "the fever" won out. "I quit my job and sold bullets," Newcomb recalls. "Then I started thinking, 'What's next?'" He was playing touch football at sundown one day with his brothers, and "one of them said, 'If we had a football that lit up, we could play touch football at night with girls.' I think it was the 'girls' part that got my attention," says Newcomb. The resulting product was a plastic football with an inserted tube of hydrogen peroxide gel that glows when bent.
A baseball player at UNH, Newcomb next invented -- after 58 prototypes -- the Automatic Curve baseball and its cousin, the Automatic Slider, which look like baseballs with a slice taken off one side. (Newcomb, who gets to meet famous athletes through his work, likes to tell a funny story about baseball great Carlton Fisk '69 and how Fisk claims to have gotten the Automatic Curve ball idea first, hitting apples with a slice missing in an orchard in his hometown.) Newcomb now markets dozens of items, and writing the slogans for them brings out his penchant for puns: Jungle Balls, for example, which trade on the Tiger Woods craze, are "guaranteed to make you a scratch golfer" and produce "purr-fect putts and drives." Laughing about his propensity for groaners, Newcomb admits, "I'm just whacked. Somehow I got that chromosome. I enjoy making people laugh."
But underneath the wacky names and whimsical advertising, Newcomb has an earnest goal: to make products that help people have fun or play better. His Wolfeboro Falls, N.H., company, C.N. is Believing, markets illuminated products that extend the number of hours people can play games outdoors. The Won Putt golf ball helps golfers perfect their putting strokes. The Automatic Curve baseball gives baseball players a chance to practice hitting tough pitches. The Big Shot golf ball is 20 percent larger and easier to get airborne; the Birdie golf ball has a badminton shuttlecock attached and allows golfers to practice driving in their backyard.
The Nitelite golf ball is his biggest success thus far. Tournaments using the glowing golf balls have been described by participants as "a hoot," but Newcomb claims serious golfers find their game actually improves. "There are no distractions, since the only thing you can see is the ball," he points out. Over 160,000 Nitelite tournaments have been held worldwide, he says.
Newcomb hasn't totally given up on a sane life: during the summer, he and his wife, Betsey Brodrick Newcomb '76, manage The Heritage, part of the resort formerly owned by his parents on Lake Winnipesaukee. His guests, as well as his two teenaged children, are happy to test out his latest inventions. His kids particularly like the new lighted badminton shuttlecock. "The only trouble is," he says, "they'd play all night if we let them."
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