Classic Toys: The Slinky
Invented by Richard James, a US Navy engineer, the loveable Slinky toy has been entertaining us since 1945.
In 1943, Richard was employed at the William Cramp and Sons shipyard in Philadelphia when he was working with metal springs while trying to find a way to hold delicate instruments steady onboard ships at sea. He accidentally knocked a spring from a shelf and he watched as it “walked” down from the shelf to a table, down to the floor, bending and arching as it went. When it hit the floor, the spring coiled itself back up, standing on its end. He was instantly struck by the fact that this could be developed into a toy of some sort and mentioned it to his wife, Betty. She wasn’t as sure as he was, but began to change her mind after he refined the spring and she saw how excited the neighborhood children got as they watched it. Everyone was impressed by its ability to “walk” down a flight of stairs.
Reportedly, Betty named the toy “Slinky” after reading the definition in the dictionary as meaning “sleek and graceful”. They took out a loan of $500 and started a company in Philadelphia called James Industries to market their invention. They had a local machine shop make 400 Slinkys and they wrapped each one in yellow paper and priced them at $1 each.
At first, the new toy didn’t do very well. Then the James’ received permission to demonstrate it at the Philadelphia Gimbels department store during the Christmas selling season. They were allowed to set up a board on an incline in the toy department, and as the customers watched, the Slinky “walked” down the board. The Jameses sold 400 Slinkys – their complete supply – in an hour and a half. The also introduced the Slinky at the 1946 American Toy Fair.
Richard then invented a machine that was able to coil wire to make the Slinky themselves. It took 80 feet of wire to make a single Slinky and his machine could pump one out in about 10 seconds. James Industries began a big advertising campaign, with Richard appearing in many of the TV commercials. The Slinky Dog was introduced in 1952 and was followed by the Slinky Train (Loco), Slinky Worm (Suzie) and the Slinky Crazy Eyes.
James Industries had a change of command in 1960 when Richard left everything, including his family, to join a religious cult in Bolivia. He died there in 1974.
Betty took over the company and their finances. Due to her husband’s large donations to his religion, she was heavily in debt. As CEO, she moved the company to Hollidaysburg, PA in 1964. She expanded Slinky advertising, including adding the famous Slinky jingle to TV commercials, and the company grew.
Betty sold James Industries and the rights to Slinky to Poof Products, Inc. in 1998 and retired. In 2001 Slinky became the Official State Toy of Pennsylvania and Betty James was inducted into the Toy Manufacturer’s Hall of Fame. She was 82 years old.
Worldwide, over 300 million Slinkys have been sold. The toy is still manufactured in Hollidaysburg, PA on the machines invented by Richard James.
Like Silly Putty, the Slinky was invented during the process of WWII product research and development. The toys are still used today by teachers in classrooms to demonstrate waves and their properties. Slinkys have been used both as a physical therapy tool to develop coordination and by soldiers in Vietnam to serve as mobile radio antennas. They have even been on the Space Shuttle to be used in physics experiments.
The Slinky is a toy that will continue to be a favorite. Betty James gave her reason for its lasting popularity. “I think it’s the simplicity. It’s not a sophisticated toy, but it’s fun and has a nice sound. There’s nothing to wind up or put chips in.”
Here’s an early 1960s classic TV commercial for the Slinky:
Simple, and fun, right?