Who Invented the Slinky?

I recently rewatched the documentary Obit. (2016) about the people at the New York Times who wrote the obituaries. I find it entertaining and inspirational at some levels.

During an explanation about how the length of the article is decided, someone says that the inventor of the Slinky and Borbatchev wouldn’t get the same word count as one had a bigger impact on the world, but that doesn’t mean that both can’t be interesting subjects for articles. I didn’t know who invented the Slinky, so now I need to know!

Who Created the Slinky?

First, for those who don’t know what is a slinky, it is a toy that consists of a helical spring, typically made of metal or plastic, that can stretch and bounce back into its original shape when released. It is often shaped like a cylinder, with a spiral design that allows it to expand and contract easily.

You probably know the slinky as the thing that walks downstairs in a weirdly captivating way:

The Accidental Slinky

The story behind the invention of the slinky is one of a happy accident that took place in 1943. Back then, engineer Richard James set out to develop a tension spring that would secure electronic equipment aboard U.S. Navy ships during World War II.

During his experimentation, Richard inadvertently knocked a spring off his work table. To his surprise, the spring gracefully “walked” across the floor, captivating his attention. He decided to experiment with different types of wire in order to create the perfect spring. He sought a balance between tension and flexibility that would allow the spring to walk downstairs and exhibit its mesmerizing motion.

After numerous trials, James settled on using 80 feet of steel wire to form the Slinky’s coil. The steel wire provided the necessary strength and durability for the toy, ensuring it could withstand repeated use and maintain its shape.

A Toy Named “Slinky”

The name “Slinky” was coined by Betty James, Richard’s wife. She discovered the word “slinky” in the dictionary and felt it perfectly described the toy’s characteristics and movement. The word “slinky” means sinuous and graceful. Betty believed the name conveyed the toy’s appeal and uniqueness.

To bring the Slinky to the market, Richard and Betty James established James Industries and obtained a $500 loan to kickstart production. They took care of the manufacturing process themselves, initially hand-wrapping each Slinky in yellow paper.

In 1945, the Slinky made its debut, measuring approximately 2.5 inches in height and consisting of 98 coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel. The toy’s compact size made it convenient to carry and store, contributing to its popularity.

Early on, the Slinky faced challenges in securing shelf space in toy stores. However, its fortunes changed when Richard James was granted permission to demonstrate the toy at Gimbels department store in Philadelphia in November 1945. The demonstration captivated Christmas shoppers, leading to the sale of an astounding 400 Slinkys within just 90 minutes.

A 1957 ad for Slinky Toys.

The success of the demonstration at Gimbels marked a turning point for the Slinky. James Industries began ramping up production and marketing efforts, advertising the toy through various channels, including television appearances by Richard James himself. These promotional efforts helped the Slinky gain nationwide attention.

In subsequent years, the Slinky expanded its product line to include additional variations. In 1952, the Slinky Dog, a beloved character that could stretch and wiggle, was introduced (he became quite popular after appearing in the 1995 movie Toy Story). Other Slinky toys followed, such as the Slinky train called Loco, the Slinky worm named Suzie, and the Slinky Crazy Eyes—a pair of glasses with Slinkys over the eyeholes attached to plastic eyeballs.

The Slinky Keeps Going On

In 1960, after his wife filed for divorce, Richard James left the company and became an evangelical missionary in Bolivia. Betty James took over the reins, managing the company and ensuring its growth and success. She moved the company to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and continued to innovate with new products while upholding the Slinky’s reputation for affordability.

The Slinky’s popularity continued to rise under Betty’s guidance, and by 2005, over 300 million Slinkys had been sold. The toy became a timeless favorite, captivating generations with its simple yet mesmerizing motion.

The Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. Betty James died of congestive heart failure in November 2008, at age 90.

Interested in the history of toys? Take a look at my article about the invention of LEGO and the Etch A Sketch.

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