The Slinky is not just a popular toy – it has become a phenomenon. But like many inventions, it was born out of an accident.
It was in 1943, during the height of World War II. The U.S. Navy needed ships as the Battle of Atlantic was raging in oceans around Europe. William Cramp & Sons was operating all through the night to meet the demand, with more than 18,000 workers toiling away at a shipyard along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.
Richard James, a mechanical engineer stationed at the shipyard, was working with new tension springs that could keep sensitive instruments secure while the ship rocked at sea. One day, as he was trying one of the new tension springs, one of them fell out of a box. The spring fell and tumbled to the floor. James watched in amazement as it landed on one of its ends. Instead of jumping back up, the spring flipped end over end, as if it were walking across the floor.
That little “mishap” gave James an idea: something as simple as a spring could become a toy. When he went home, he told his wife, Betty, about his idea. She decided to come up with a name for the new “walking spring.” In 1944, she was scouring a dictionary. Then, she found the word “slinky,” which means “sleek and sinuous in movement or outline.” Just the way the spring moved and sounded as it was flipping along.
He spent the next few years tinkering with coils in the quest of the slinkiest shape – one that was completely compressed when relaxed.
Using a $500 loan, Richard and Betty James founded James Industries in 1945, the same year when Slinky first hit the store shelves.
At first, people didn’t know what to make of it. How could be a mere wire a fun toy? Shopkeepers found Slinky as too boring for the kids, who were used to loud and colorful toys. As a result, sales were slow. So, James decided to take matters to his own hands – by marketing them himself. He staged a demo at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia during the Christmas shopping season in 1945. There were about 400 units of Slinky that day, and in less than two hours, the shelves were wiped off. They cost about a dollar each. Needless to say, the Slinky became a national sensation.
After the war, the demand for the world’s hottest toy grew, and naturally, production should match it. James developed a machine to coil the wire. He received a patent in 1946 for the Slinky, describing as “a helical spring toy which will walk on an amusement platform such as an inclined plane or set of steps from a starting point to successive lower landing points without application of external force beyond the starting force and the action of gravity.”
James continued in his quest to achieve the ideal dimensions of his Slinky. Finally, he arrived at the perfect specifications: an 80 feet of wire into a two-inch spiral. You can find the exact mathematical equation of the Slinky in his patent materials.
The reality of any business: it has its ups as well as its downs. When Slinky’s sales were going on a slump, Richard James left the firm and his family, moved to Bolivia in 1960, and joined a Bible cult. Betty, a newly single mother with six kids, took the big risk by taking over the company’s management.
She waged the mortgage of their home to go to a toy show in New York in 1963. It was there when Slinky became a hot toy once again, flying off the shelves, thanks in large part of the catchy jingle that was aired on television.
The company introduced a new toy, the Slinky Dog, which helped turn around declining sales. It even became a bigger seller after a version of it was featured in the movie Toy Story in 1995.
At the time of Betty James’ death in 2008, over 300 million Slinkys of all variations had been sold.
Many reasons have been given for Slinky’s success and enduring, timeless appeal. Many people say it’s affordable, while others say it teaches kids physics. But Betty James said it best: “Children love simple things.”