What Is a Slinky and How Was It Invented?
Most kids have played with a Slinky toy at one time or another. You may even have one or more Slinky toys at home in your toy box! They’re so much fun to start at the top of a staircase and watch them “walk” down the stairs all on their own.
But what is a Slinky? It’s basically just a metal spring! In fact, it wasn’t even invented as a toy. It was a fortunate accident that occurred in 1943 when an engineer was trying to design a new tension spring that would keep electronic equipment secureaboard U.S. Navy ships during World War II.
That engineer was named BTS Richard T. James, and he accidentally knocked a spring he was working on off his worktable. It fell to the floor and began “walking” across the floor. He realized that something as simple as a spring could be a toy.
He began experimenting with different types of wire with a variety of tensions, thicknesses, and lengths. Finally, in 1945, he settled on what he thought was the perfect combination: 80 feet of steel wire coiled into a two-inch helical spring. The Slinky was born!
He and his wife, Betty James, took out a $500 loan to start James Industries and began manufacturing the Slinky. Betty actually came up with the name when she searched the dictionary and came across the term, which means sinuous and graceful.
Initially, sales were slow, but that all changed in November 1945 when the Gimbels department store in Philadelphia allowed James to demonstrate to Christmas shoppers how the Slinky worked. After his demonstration, he sold all 400 Slinkys he had brought to the store that day in an hour and a half.
By the 1950s, the Slinky was a national sensation. The fame that followed the toy got to Richard James. In 1960, he left his family to move to Bolivia to join a religious cult. Betty took over the leadership of the company and built a factory in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania.
Under Betty’s leadership, the Slinky continued its popularity. She added new products, such as Slinky trains and Slinky animals. Slinky Dog became very successful after appearing in the 1995 movie Toy Story. In 1998, Betty James sold the company to Poof Products, Inc.
While Slinky was always a popular toy, people found other uses for Slinkys. In the Vietnam War, soldiers discovered that a Slinky could be attached to a radio and thrown over a tree branch to create an effective antenna. You might also find Slinkys attached to bird feeders to protect them from pesky squirrels.
Slinky has been used other than as a toy in the playroom: it has appeared in the classroom as a teaching tool, in wartime as a radio antenna, and in physics experiments with NASA. Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, New York, in 2000.
In 2002, Slinky became Pennsylvania’s official state toy, and, in 2003, was named to the Toy Industry Association’s “Century of Toys List.” In its first 60 years Slinky sold 300 million units. That’s enough Slinkys to circle Earth over 150 times!