The history of the Slinky, and its humble origin, is one of innovation, imagination, and perseverance as much as it is chance. Richard James, the founder of James Spring & Wire Company, invented the much-loved precompressed helical spring toy in 1943 while serving as a naval engineer at the William Cramp & Sons shipyards in Philadelphia.
James wasn’t looking to invent a new children’s toy. As it was, he was attempting to perfect a tension spring to stabilize sensitive instruments on US warships and free them of the vibration caused by the likes of gunfire, propeller shafts, and rolling seas.
James would be developing a tension spring for an entirely different application. He had already tried and tested numerous springs of various sizes and tensions, by some accounts, hundreds. He kept them all stacked on his work desk. But one of the prototypes, one amongst a hundred others, had the tension, diameter, dimensions, and other properties necessary for a toy. Rather than bounce around or flop like a traditional spring would, it, instead, pulled by gravity, began a slithering motion. James watched it “walk down from its spot,” as he would later say. The spring “stepped” end-over-end in a series of arcs until the gravitational force ceased where the object landed upright and recoiled.
A Toy That Walks
Suddenly, the idea for a coiled spring toy that could walk down steps sprang to life. He turned to the one person who would become instrumental in the Slinky’s eventual success, his wife Betty, telling her he believed he could make the spring into a toy that “walks.” She quickly realized the invention’s potential as a new toy, and even conceived the name for it. Flipping through a dictionary, Betty found a word that aptly described the spring’s motion: “Slinky,” meaning “graceful and sinuous in movement, line, or figure.” The word fits perfectly.
Coiling 80ft of Spring Wire
Throughout the remainder of the war years Richard conducted experiments with different types of steel wire until, in 1945, he settled on one that held the right combination of material properties with the right tension and filed a patent. Coiling 80 feet of spring wire into a 21/2 inch high stack of 98 wound loops the object could be propelled to walk by transferring its energy along its length in a longitudinal wave. In other words, the Slinky was able to “walk” because he had wound the 80 feet of wire loops to have zero tension or compression. In effect, the coils would as soon fall apart as together.
The Popularity of the Slinky
At this point, James borrowed $500, the equivalent of close to $7,500 in 2021 dollars, to form a company that would become known as James Industries. In late November of 1945, the company acquired a space to exhibit their new toy at Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia. The first day they sold out the entire inventory of 400 Slinkys in 90 minutes—for $1 apiece (equal to $15 in 2021 dollars). Before Christmas, they had sold 20,000. Over the next year, they would sell more than a quarter-million. Within two years, they would sell 100 million Slinky toys. At $1 each, that $100 million in sales, adjusted for inflation, would equal a staggering $1.43 billion in today’s dollars.
The popularity of the Slinky continued to grow, along with an expanded product line, into the 1940s and 1950s. The Slinky Dog made its debut in 1952, followed by the Slinky train Loco, Suzie the Slinky worm, and a party favorite—Slinky Crazy Eyes—those familiar eyeglasses with plastic eyeballs attached to the end of a Slinky and then inserted into the eye hole rims of the frame.
Despite the phenomenal early success of the Slinky, by the late 1950s sales had peaked, along with Richard’s interest in the company. He became involved with a religious sect, allegedly funneling company profits to them and squandering a fortune. By 1960, he informed his wife he was moving to Bolivia to live with members of the group. He gave her a choice of going with him, selling the company, or for her to take it over. Betty chose the latter, and Richard left his family—his wife and six children—to become a missionary for the sect, leaving the business in shambles.
Betty, however, still believed in the potential for the toy and would persevere. The single mother of six managed the company, juggling creditors and debt, until, in 1963 she mortgaged the family home to reintroduce the Slinky at a toy show in New York. It worked. Combined with a catchy jingle that aired for the first time that year, the toy caught a second wind and the Slinky experienced a renaissance in sales. In 1964, Betty moved the company to her hometown of Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where she would manage the company for the next 38 years, and where the toy is still manufactured.
The Slinky Evolution
Through the decades, the toy took on a life of its own. Because the metal properties of the Slinky resonates between 7 and 8 MHz, during the Vietnam War, American soldiers used it as an antenna. Slinkys have also been used in light fixtures, for keeping leaves and debris out of rain gutters, in pecan picking machines, and for keeping squirrels out of bird feeders. The Slinky was brought into space in 1985 aboard the Discovery Space Shuttle to demonstrate zero gravity, where it would not “slink at all” and “sort of droops.”
Slinky sales would rise, dip, and then gain steam time and again. When the movie Toy Story premiered in 1995, for example, it included a Slinky dog character named, “Slink,” which subsequently spurred the sale of over 825,000 units. In 1998, after 38 years of directing and managing the company, Betty retired and sold James Industries to Poof Products, a Michigan manufacturer of simple foam toys that complemented the classic Slinky. Poof also met Betty’s main requirement that Slinkys continue to be manufactured at the facility in Hollidaysburg.
As the year 2000 approached, the Slinky was listed as one of the top 10 toys of the 20th century by both The Discovery Channel and The History Channel. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. The following year the Toy Industry Association inducted Betty James into its Hall of Fame. The U.S. Postal Service would even honor the Slinky on a commemorative stamp. By the 70th anniversary of the company’s founding over 300 million Slinkys had been sold worldwide.
Today, the Slinky continues to thrive, and the “accidental invention” lives on as an American icon.