The Remarkable, War-Torn, Spacefaring History of the Slinky

The story of the Slinky begins with a mechanical engineer, a shipbuilding factory, and a mishap.

It was 1943. The U.S. Navy needed ships for World War II as the Battle of the Atlantic raged in the oceans around Europe. The Cramp Shipbuilding Company was operating through all hours of the night to meet the demand. More than 18,000 men and women were working at the shipyard along the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Mechanical engineer Richard James was trying to develop a new tension spring that could keep a ship’s equipment secure while the vessel rocked at sea. One day he accidentally knocked a spring off his worktable. The spring tumbled to the floor, landing on one of its ends, but instead of jumping back up, the spring flopped end over end, walking across the floor.

The experience gave James an idea: Something as simple as a spring could be a toy. He told his wife, Betty, about the experience, and she decided to come up with a name for the new walking spring. In 1944, when leafing through the dictionary in search of an appropriate term, Betty found a word meaning sinuous and graceful—just the way the spring moved and sounded as it flopped along. The word was “slinky.”

A National Sensation

James began experimenting to find the ideal spring tension and thickness. He toyed with different steel wires, adjusting their girths and lengths. In 1945, after about a year of tinkering, he found the perfect size: 80 feet of wire coiled into a two-inch helical spring. With the feeling that he was onto something, the WWII vessel engineer took out a $500 loan to start James Industries.

James had little trouble getting toy stock their shelves with Slinkys. But there was a problem. Sales were slow. Customers couldn’t understand how a spring could be a toy. The James family had to show the world what the Slinky could do.

They convinced Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to set up a demonstration in November 1945, and a ramp was set up in the toy department. Hundreds gathered around James, watching the Slinky elegantly stroll down the ramp, end over end. James had brought 400 Slinkys to the store that day. At $1 each, they sold out in 90 minutes.

After the war, as demand for the country’s hottest new toy grew, James developed a machine to coil the wire. A patent filed by James in 1946 and awarded the next year outlines the machine’s design and specifications. It could coil all 80 feet of a Slinky in 10 seconds. A Slinky, the patent said, could be used for both a child’s amusement and for “parlor games.” The best way to make a Slinky walk on an inclined plane, it also stated, was to cover the plane “with an anti-slip surface such as fabric” to prevent the Slinky from sliding down the hill. But if you didn’t have a ramp, a staircase would work just fine.

The toy became a national phenomenon by the 1950s. But as the decade wore on, James’s personal interest in the business waned. He became enthralled with a religious cult during a visit to Bolivia, and he began donating money to the group shortly after. One morning in 1960, James told his family he was moving to Bolivia to join the cult and serve as a missionary. All were welcome to join him, but his family—Betty and six children—chose to remain in Pennsylvania.

After James left for Bolivia, the Slinky rested solely in Betty’s hands. She served as the president of James Industries for the next 38 years, while her husband would pass away in Bolivia in 1974. As one of her first orders of business as president of the company, Betty established a factory in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. From there—the Slinky, the result of a simple mishap—cemented its reputation as one of the most identifiable toys in America. Its television commercials, which first aired in 1963, became a household mantra—”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 and a boy.”

The Versatility of a Toy Spring

Although the Slinky was invented during wartime, it never went to WWII. However, by the 1960s people realized this spring was good for more than amusement, and that’s when the Slinky went to the battlefields of Vietnam.

If you use a Slinky as an antenna, it receives at a frequency between seven and eight megahertz. So troops in the Vietnam War used them as impromptu radio antennas. Soldiers would clip the ends of the Slinkys onto radios and run the other end up a tree or toss it over a high branch. The lightweight metal coil provided a long antenna and a clear signal.

Today, the National Wildlife Federation recommends using Slinkys to protect bird feeders from hungry squirrels. Secure one end of the Slinky to the top of a feeder to cover the entire structure in the coiled metal wire. If a squirrel tries to jump on to steal the food, the Slinky will lower it down to the ground like an elevator ride.

The Slinky has even gone to space—though it doesn’t quite slink in microgravity. In 1985, astronaut Margaret Rhea Seddon tested the physics properties of a Slinky, as well as other toys including a yo-yo and jacks, aboard the Space Shuttle. “It won’t slink at all,” Seddon reported in a telecast at the time. “It sort of droops.”

Under Betty James’s watch, new Slinky products were also developed. Slinky Trains and Slinky animals—namely the Slinky Dog—were variations of the original toy. Each had a Slinky body. The train had wheels on each end of the spring, while the dog had its front and hind legs surrounding the Slinky. Strings were attached to the front of the train and to the nose of the dog, so they could be pulled around the house.

In perhaps James Industries’ biggest success, the Slinky Dog appeared as a character in “Toy Story” in 1995. Nicknamed “Slink,” the character is Woody’s loyal friend, always going the distance for his fellow sentient toys. James Industries only sold a few hundred Slinky Dogs per year before Pixar’s iconic movie premiered. In 1996, that number had reached 12,000, and the company had to scramble to manufacture more Slinky Dogs due to backorders.

Two years later, with the company still growing, Betty, then 80 years old, sold James Industries to Poof Products, Inc., in part to prevent her children from facing inheritance taxes. In her negotiations with Poof Products, Betty made one condition: The Slinky factory would need to remain in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. Poof Products agreed, and renamed itself Poof-Slinky, Inc. in 2004.

Betty’s Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. That same year, the Slinky was named the official toy of Pennsylvania. She passed away in 2008. Slinkys no longer cost one dollar, but one dollar in 1945 is equivalent to about $13.56 today. A single Slinky in a retro box costs $5.99, and you can get them in multi-colored plastic as well as the classic polished metal. But whatever it’s made of, you can count on one thing: Those springs will walk down your stairs, just as they did in 1945.

Original article: The Slinky

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