… That the Slinky was accidentally invented in 1943 by a naval mechanical engineer at Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard? Richard James was in the process of developing a spring that would prevent vibration of sensitive shipboard instruments. He piled discards on top of his desk, happened to knock off a torsion spring, and was amused by the way it “walked” down a stack of books, tumbling end over end until it hit the floor. He took it home to show his wife and children. Soon all the neighborhood kids wanted one too.
After telling his wife, Betty, “I think I can make a toy out of this,” Richard James spent the next two years testing steel gauge and coil tightness. He designed and engineered machines to turn eighty feet of wire into a two-and-a-half-inch stack of ninety-eight coils. Meanwhile, Betty James named the new toy “Slinky.”
The Slinky debuted in 1945 during the Christmas season at Philadelphia’s Gimbel’s department store. Richard, worried about the first public performance by his toy, talked an enthusiastic friend into attending and offering to buy one. This turned out to be unnecessary. All four hundred Slinkys on hand were sold during that ninety-minute demonstration.
In 1956, the Jameses cofounded James Spring & Wire (soon renamed James Industries) to produce the Slinky with start-up capital of $500. The Slinky factory was near Philadelphia, but around 1960, Richard left his wife, six children, and Slinky to join a religious group in Bolivia. Betty took over as CEO and rescued the company from the debts left by her husband’s generosity to his religion. She moved the company to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where it has remained for the last forty-plus years and where Richard James’s original equipment is still being used. She also began an active advertising campaign, complete with the now famous Slinky jingle, and manufactured three to four million Slinkys annually.
The first Slinkys had been made from expensive, blue-black Swedish steel. Betty James replaced that with a silver-colored American alloy. In the 1960s a coating was added that made the spring even more silvery looking.
Over the years changes and improvements were made. In 1973 a crimp was added to make the ends of the wire smoother and safer. Since late 1978, the Slinky also is made of a plastic from Chevron Phillips Chemical Co. “We decided to make Slinkys in plastic too,” explained Mrs. James, “because younger children tangled the metal ones too easily and had trouble holding onto them. With plastic, we can manufacture a larger diameter Slinky which is easier for small hands to manage, and we can produce it in bright colors that really appeal to children.” Betty James added other toys to the line: Slinky Jr., Plastic Slinky, Slinky Dog, Slinky Pets, Crazy Eyes (glasses with Slinky-extended fake eyeballs), and Neon Slinky.
Though Slinky is meant to be a toy, there have been other uses for it—antennae by U.S. soldiers in Vietnam, a therapy tool for coordination development, and a physics-lab-in-a-box to demonstrate wave properties, forces, and energy states.
The Slinky has even appeared in movies: “Ace Ventura—When Nature Calls,” “Demolition Man,” “Other People’s Money,” and “Hairspray.” The Slinky Dog has an important role in Disney’s digitally-animated feature, “Toy Story.”
The novelty of the Slinky has never faded. It remains one of the most successful toys of all time, entertaining generations with its springy movements and mesmerizing walks down stairs. Since its introduction in 1947, sales have topped more than 250 million—a Slinky for every resident of the United States. If stretched end to end, all the Slinkys sold since 1945 would wrap around the world 126 times. In 1998 Poof Toys bought the line.
In 2001 Betty James was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
The Slinky jingle is the longest-running jingle in television history:
What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, And makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing, Everyone knows it’s Slinky…
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, for fun it’s a wonderful toy.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky, it’s fun for a girl and a boy.