Happy 70th, Slinky! How it all started with the military

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Photo courtesy of National Toy Hall of Fame
Photo courtesy of National Toy Hall of Fame

Happy 70th, Slinky! How it all started with the military

by: Katie Lange, DoD News | .
Defense Media Activity | .
published: September 01, 2015

Guess what today is?? The 70th anniversary of the Slinky. Happy birthday, Slinky!

OK, so maybe it’s not the most interesting of birthdays to celebrate, but believe it or not, the creation and stability of the Slinky over the decades just goes to show the ingenuity of our military members.

Yes, someone in the military came up with the Slinky — a naval engineer, in fact. Richard James, a 30-year-old from Havertown, Pennsylvania, created it, and he did so accidentally.

According to the Slinky website, James was working at Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipyard in 1943, testing horsepower for battleships, when a torsion spring used in a testing meter fell off his desk and tumbled across the floor. Instead of just thinking, “I guess I have to pick that up,” James was instead amused and thought, “Hmm…. I think I can make a toy out of this.”

According to a 1948 newspaper article, James took the spring home to entertain his son, who tested its bounce on the family’s stairs. When neighborhood kids grew interested, James began experimenting with the formula that allowed the spring to walk. He created a machine that coiled 80 feet of wire into a two-inch spiral, according to the Toy Hall of Fame, which inducted the Slinky in 2000.

James’ wife, Betty, helped him name his invention Slinky because the word meant “stealthy, sleek and sinuous” in the dictionary.

In 1945, the James’ company, James Industries, got a $500 loan to pay a manufacturer to make a few hundred Slinkys so they could sell them at stores in Philadelphia.

It did not go well at first.

No one had heard of the Slinky, so no one bought it. But the Jameses eventually got the Gimbels department store to let them demonstrate their walkable coil just before Christmas, and to their surprise, people loved it! All 400 Slinkys that were on display that first day sold out in about 90 minutes.

Business boomed through the 1950s until 1960, when James left his wife to move to South America to join what she considered to be a cult. He left her with their six children and the Slinky business. Instead of giving up on it, Betty moved it to her hometown of Hollidaysburg in western Pennsylvania and came up with the now-iconic jingle in which “Everyone knows it’s Slinky!”

Over the decades, more Slinky products were added, including plastic Slinkys, giant Slinkys, glow-in-the-dark Slinkys and the ever-popular Slinky Dog. Over 300 million Slinkys have been sold, according to the website. The famous toy was even honored on a commemorative postage stamp, and who doesn’t remember its cameo in the 1995 sequel, “Ace Ventura: When Nature Calls?”

While Slinky was sold to another company in 1998, it remains one of America’s most recognized toys.

I, personally, could never get my Slinky to go down more than a couple of steps at a time. But I had one to entertain me, and apparently so did just about everyone else in America.

So if you’re looking for a simplistic toy for your kids this year that was military made, perhaps give that oldie but goodie a try!

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This article was published on DoD Live on Aug. 30, 2015.

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