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August 22, 2016

Fascinating Facts About the Invention of the Slinky by Betty and Richard James in 1945

"You don't have to be smart, athletic, rich, or clever to appreciate the Slinky. It's a toy for regular people." - Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, 1993.

The Slinky debuted at Gimbel's Department Store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1945. Richard James, the inventor, was skeptical about how the Slinky would sell. All his doubts were put to rest when all 400 Slinkys for sale were purchased in 90 minutes. Since then, over three hundred million Slinkys have been sold worldwide.

In the mid-1940s there wasn’t a cooler or more desired toy on the market than the Slinky.

Children wouldn’t just push a slinky down a flight of stairs and watch it work — they also challenged each other to create the coolest, most mind-boggling tricks possible with their metallic toy.

What many fans of the iconic toy might not realize is that it was invented completely by accident.

Images from James’ patent, filed in August 1946 and approved January 1947.

The Slinky story started in 1943, when Naval Mechanical Engineer Richard James, was stationed at the William Cramp and Sons shipyards in Philadelphia. He was developing springs that could support and stabilize sensitive instruments when ships traveled into rough seas.

As he reached for one of his springs it was knocked from a shelf. James noticed that the spring “stepped” in a series of arcs from a stack of books, to a tabletop, and eventually onto the floor, where it re-coiled itself.

James decided to perfect the Slinky and worked with various types of steel and tension levels. After one year of tinkering he was ready to introduce the slinky to the world.

Slinky machine

His wife, Betty, had her doubts when he first started perfecting the toy. Those doubts were quickly swept away after she saw the final product. Children in the couple’s neighborhood eagerly awaited their turn to play with the new toy.

It was Betty who named it Slinky, a term she found in the dictionary and which stands for “sleek” and “graceful.”

With these advancements, James sold more than 100 million Slinky units in the first two years of production; as he kept the price of the toy at $1, he raked in the modern equivalent of $1 billion in revenue.

She believed the word aptly described the sound of the toy’s metal spring expanding and collapsing.

Richard and Betty James took out a $500 loan and formed James Industries, originally known as the James Spring & Wire company.

The first 400 Slinky units were made by a local machine shop. Each toy was hand-wrapped in yellow paper, and priced at $1 a piece.

The toys were originally 2 ½” tall and featured 98 coils made from high-grade blue-black Swedish steel.

1946 ad for Slinky.

Toy stores quickly turned down the couple’s new invention. It looked as though the Slinky was going to fail. In 1945, Gimbels department store located in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, decided to give the couple a chance to demonstrate their invention in the toy section of the store.

The toy sold out with 400 units being snatched up by eager children in just ninety minutes.

In 1946, Slinky was introduced at the American Toy Fair.

The toy became a national sensation after a commercial jingle proclaimed, “What walks down stairs alone or in pairs and makes a slinkety sound? A spring a spring, a marvelous thing. Everyone knows it’s Slinky!”

Slinky inventor Richard James, (R), and son Thomas, play with Slinkys on the stairs of the James family home in Philadelphia, PA, in 1945.

By the end of the 20th century there were already more than 250 million Slinkys sold.

In 2000 the Slinky was inducted into the toy hall of fame at The Strong: National Museum of Play.

The toy is still sold in stores around the world in both metal and plastic versions. The original Slinky though, remains the standard benchmark.

A rainbow-colored plastic Slinky, c. 1974. (via)

Interesting Facts:
  • In 1960, Richard James left his struggling company, which was deeply in debt, and moved to Bolivia where he became a missionary. When Betty refused to go with him, he told her she could have the company and he didn’t care what she did with it. Betty then took over the company and proved to be a much better business person than her ex-husband. The company expanded greatly under her leadership and to date has sold over 300 million Slinkies.
  • For her contributions in making the Slinky one of the all time best selling toys in the world, Betty James was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2001. She died in 2008, at the age of 90. Her ex-husband, Richard James, died just 14 years after moving to Bolivia, in 1974.
  • Around 80 feet of wire was used in the original slinky design.
  • In 1945, the original Slinky toy sold for $1.00. Today, the same Slinky sells for about $1.99.
  • Other than toys, Slinkies have been used in pecan picking, drapery holders, antennas, light fixtures, window decorations, gutter protectors, bird house protectors, therapeutic devices, wave motion coils, table decorations, and mail holders, among other things. Notable among these were U.S. troops in Vietnam using the Slinky as mobile radio antennas and NASA later using Slinkies in certain zero-gravity experiments.
  • 50,000 tons of wire (around 3,030,000 miles worth) has been used in making the slinky since 1945 to present. That’s about enough wire to go around the Earth 121 times at the equator.

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