The up and down story of the Slinky toy

Slinky toy

The Slinky toy is an icon of design, in addition to being a popular toy, selling more than 300 million to date. Behind the story of the invention and success of the toy, is something of a sad – and happy – family tale.

It all started with a naval engineer in 1943, named Richard James. He was working on ways to use springs to maintain the accuracy, and to reduce the wear and tear of ship instruments, due to the movement of the sea. While working, he knocked a large torsion spring from the shelf, and watched in wonder as the spring briefly ‘walked’ along the shelf, down to the floor, and came to a standing stop. It was a lightbulb moment.

He went home, and told his wife Betty that he thought if he had the right metal, in the right tension, that he could make a product that could walk. Betty was unimpressed.

James continued to work on the idea, and, one year on, hit on a combination of metal and tension that worked. Betty was still unimpressed, until James showed off his invention to a group of neighbourhood kids, who were excited by seeing Richard’s invention walk down stairs. Betty was now impressed.

The invention had no name, so Betty went to the dictionary to find inspiration. She hit upon the word slinky, not only because of its meaning, being sleek and graceful, but also because the thought the word sounded like the noise the spring made as it moved. The torsion spring idea was now officially the Slinky.

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Both James and Betty were now believers in its potential, and borrowed $500 to start the James Spring & Wire Company. They made 400 Slinkies, and trudged around stores to sell their product. Unsuccessfully.

Then, in November 1945, they talked the Gimbals department store in Philadelphia into letting them set up an in-store display ramp, and began demonstrating the Slinky walk down the ramp. All 400 Slinkies sold out in 90 minutes.

Then followed their own store, TV demonstrations, advertisements, and word of mouth. Over the next two years Richard and Betty sold 100 million Slinkies.


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At this point you would expect to read that the Slinky, having become a huge success, went on to secure fortune, and a small slice of fame, for the James family. But as time went on Richard had begun to donate large amounts of money to evangelical organisations, and, in 1960 left the family to become a missionary in Bolivia.

The couple divorced, and Betty was left was six children, and a financially troubled company. Over time she was able to rescue the company, add to the line of products, and sold the company in 1998. She was 80 years old, and retired wealthy. Sadly Richard died in Bolivia in 1974.

The Slinky continues to sell to this day. It made the Toys Hall of Fame in 2000, and in 2002 it was mentioned in President George W Bush’s State of the Union. He said, “I can not think of a recreational device that better exemplifies the inventiveness of the American spirit”.

So there you have the up, down, and up again story behind a toy that went down stairs, across gloors, and delighted generations of children.

Did you have a Slinky toy as a child? Or do you still have one? Do your grandchildren play with Slinkies? Let us know in the Comments section below.