Posted by Remo Giuffré on
In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was designing a device that the US Navy could use to secure equipment on ships while they rocked at sea. As the story goes, he dropped the coiled wires he was tinkering with from a shelf, and watched as the spring "stepped" in a series of arcs to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and onto the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. Classic Slinky behaviour right out of the gate.
James went home and told his wife Betty James about his idea to develop the coil into a toy. But what to call it? Betty scoured the dictionary for a fitting name, landing on “slinky,” which means “sleek and sinuous in movement or outline”.
Together, with a $500 loan, they co-founded James Industries in 1945, using those funds to produce 400 Slinky units to James’ specifications. Each was 2.5 inches tall, contained 80 feet of “high-grade blue-black Swedish steel wire” wrapped into 98 coils, packaged in simple yellow parchment paper.
In November of that year they managed to convince a Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia to let them do a demonstration during the Christmas shopping season in 1945. They set up an inclined plane in the toy section for the purposes of the demonstration. Slinky was an immediate hit, and the first 400 units were sold in less than two hours, selling for $1 a pop (about $17 in 2023 dollars).
As it happens, James turned out to be somewhat of a philanderer, not a good look for a father of six. In 1960 he made an unexpected and dramatic exit from the family, buying a one-way ticket to rural Bolivia, and joining what Betty called “an evangelical Christian cult” somewhere deep in the wilderness.
Betty was left with a company in poor shape, as James had given away all of the profits to evangelical Christian organisations over the years. However, she did manage to oversee a Slinky revival. In 1962, she commissioned three musicians to write a jingle for Slinky, and set in place an aggressive television advertising campaign. The jingle, which famously proclaimed “Everyone wants a Slinky; You want to get a Slinky,” worked. It not only rejuvenated interest in the toy, but went on to become the longest-running jingle in the history of television advertising.
By the time Betty sold James Industries to toy manufacturer Poof Products, Inc. for “a boatload of money” in 1998, it had sold more than 300 million of its flagship Slinky Toys.
And it turns out that Slinky is not just a toy. During the Vietnam War, soldiers would sometimes use a Slinky as a portable, extendable antenna for their radios, fastening one end to themselves and tossing the other end over a tree branch to get a clear signal.
Slinky has even gone into space. Astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon demonstrated the Slinky’s behaviour in zero gravity during a telecast from the Discovery Space Shuttle in 1985. Even without the benefit of gravity, the spring energy was able to facilitate some pretty nice moves. Watch them HERE.
1. Slinky Toy. Image Credit: Kathryn8/Getty Images
2 & 3. Images from James’ patent, filed in August 1946 and approved January 1947
4. Richard James with his son, 1940s
5. Slinky Ad from the 1960s
6. Slinky Jingle here
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