The Science of Success: The Back Story

Philip Cable of American Science & Surplus

Philip Cable of American Science & Surplus

Philip spent his post-college days mapping out neighborhoods to find the best buildings to rehab, he created and ran an indoor mini golf course and had a “science-experiments-for-kids” catalogue business that he, interestingly enough, sold to American Science & Surplus in the late 1990s. After Philip went back to school at nights to get his MBA he started researching what companies he might be interested in buying. When he came across a business-for-sale listing that could have only been American Science & Surplus, he negotiated an offer and has been at the helm ever since 2000.

Catalogue and internet sales are the bread and butter of the business bring in making up 70% of the salesbusiness, with the Illinois stores in Chicago and Geneva and the Milwaukee, Wisconsin store bringing the rest in the remaining 30% of theof the $7 million in annual sales. While Philip thought the website would make the catalogue obsolete five years ago, there is still a demand for the print copy, a quirky publication with hand drawn line art and sassy, funny copy written by a brother and sister team.

In addition to the heavy duty telescopes and science gear they sell, here are some of the strangest items they have ever sold:

  • Army surplus mule branding set – it used a letter and a number for the branding and this set was purchased by someone who used them to brand steaks at a cookout.
  • Giant Fresnel lens – so large that if it had taken it outside in the sunlight at high noon it would melt a penny in three seconds.
  • Giant suction cup – the suction cup was bright yellow and about two feet in diameter. A fully grown man could easily hang from the cup and the cup and had to be pried off the walls once it wasthey were affixed.


American Science & Surplus uses clever tactics to get attention. The April Fools catalogue always has one made up item such as an antigravity device, or flotation paint that could be used to get anything to float because “how else would aircraft carriers be able to float???” Customers that find the made up item gets a free gift and every year they get a couple of orders for the Fools Day item. The tactic is fun for most readers and gets the loyalists to read every entry looking for the imposter.

The stores are well worth a visit if you are in the area and the catalogue is well worth a read. I have bought countless things there over the years – kites and bottles and balloon rockets. I recently spied a lovely gnome shaped soap on a rope – you can’t get that just anywhere. The eclectic product lineup, the quirky catalogue and the wacky descriptions make American Science & Surplus a winning combination.

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