Sometimes toys have a way of finding their market after meeting failure in a different form. Silly Putty started life in a wartime research lab, didn’t make the military grade but wound up delighting millions of children. During the early 1940s, marine engineer Richard James was working on a spring to counterbalance the wave motion that rocks a ship. Specifically, his aim was to design an anti-vibration device for ship instruments, one that would prevent needle gauges from being thrown off by the heave and roll of a ship at sea. James was experimenting with various types of delicate, fast-responding springs and one day accidentally knocked an experimental spring off a shelf. Instead of clattering to the floor, the spring sort of crawled, coil by coil to a lower shelf, down onto a stack of books, to the tabletop and eventually down to the floor, still coiled in an upright position. And thus was born the Slinky, a toy that in its first sixty years of production charmed over 300 million children worldwide and continues to be a bestselling toy.
James and his wife Betty scraped together $500 and formed James Industries. They called the toy a Slinky after Betty spent a couple of days thumbing through a dictionary looking for a word that fit her husband’s invention. ‘Slinky’ was the word she felt best described the toy’s sinuous motion. For a year James experimented further with different types of steel wire, finding one finally that allowed the Slinky to ‘walk.’ They had 400 Slinky spring-toys made by a local machine shop, hand-wrapped each toy and settled on a price of $1 a piece. The Slinky was two and a half inches tall and included ninety-eight coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel. At first they met with difficulty in selling Slinky to toy stores, but in 1945 they got the chance to set up a demonstration in the toy section of New York’s Gimbels Department Store to show off the toy. Slinky wowed shoppers and the first 400 were sold within ninety minutes.
Richard and James separated in 1960 and Richard left the business to his wife. Betty continued to manage the company, expanding the business until 1998, when she joined hands with Poof Products, a manufacturer of foam sports balls. James Industries and Poof Products, Inc merged in 2003 to create Poof-Slinky, Inc.
As is sometimes the case, things have a way of finding a usefulness in unintended areas. During the Vietnam War, communications soldiers often tossed a Slinky over a high tree branch as a makeshift radio antenna. One person found a way of incorporating the Slinky into a spring device used to pick pecans from trees. To test the effects of zero gravity on the mechanics of springs Slinky has been sent aloft on the space shuttle. Honors the toy has received include a 1999 Slinky commemorative stamp issued by the US Postal Service; in 2000 Slinky was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame, and in 2003 named one of the 100 most memorable toys of the twentieth century.
Some of us may remember the 1980s television commercial for Slinky that included the jingle:
What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkity sound?
A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. For fun it’s a wonderful toy.
It’s Slinky, it’s Slinky. It’s fun for a girl or a boy.
It’s fun for a girl or a boy.