Sunday, July 14, 2024


The Slinky is one of the simplest yet most iconic toys in the world. It was accidentally created in 1943 by the inventor from Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, Richard James. He was a mechanical engineer in the US Navy. At one point, James worked at the William Cramp & Sons shipyard in Philadelphia, developing springs to support delicate instruments on ships during storms. Quite by chance, he made a phenomenal invention that has been popular for 80 years. Learn more at philadelphia-future.

The invention that met its inventor

According to one version, once, Richard James wanted to take one of the springs he had created off the shelf. Another version states that he accidentally knocked over a can of spare parts on the shelf. In either case, the spring, slipping from his hands or falling out of the can, started moving in a very unusual way. When stretched, one end of it “stepped” on a stack of books, then rolled and stood on the other end on the table and then similarly “stepped” onto the floor. These maneuvers with improvised “stairs” looked very impressive. The engineer was so fascinated by this interesting spring that he began to improve it, experimenting for months with types of steel and wire tension levels. Eventually, one day, Richard launched the spring down the stairs of his house and showed his creation to his wife, Betty. Together, they thought that a “walking” spring could be a wonderful toy. Trying to find a name for it, Betty M. James started flipping through a dictionary. She allegedly came across the Swedish word “slinky,” which means “smooth,” “sinuous” and also “mysterious.” Also, the name can be derived from the words “snake-like motion.” So, they named the spring toy “slinky.” The final version of this invention consisted of 98 coils. When folded, its height was 6.35 centimeters.

Some say that when there was just one copy of the toy, local kids lined up to try for themselves how the spring “walks.” The intuition and reaction of the children pushed the James couple to take a risk. In 1945, they borrowed $500 and founded a company that started industrial production of the miracle spring. Thus, this marked the beginning of the mass production of one of the most famous and beloved toys in the world. The brand “Slinky” and its products quickly captured the hearts of millions of people. Although at first, it seemed unbelievable to the couple.

They made the first 400 springs from high-quality blue-black Swedish steel. Each toy was wrapped in parchment paper. They set a price of $1 per item and started looking for distribution partners. The inventor tried to approach small toy stores, but they refused to cooperate because they were not impressed by a simple wire twisted into a spiral. The couple was upset but did not give up. They turned to the department store Gimbels in Philadelphia on the eve of Christmas in 1945. The establishment allowed Richard and Betty to display their products on the storefront. The springs remained unseen until Richard offered to demonstrate the invention in action to visitors in the toy department. Within 90 minutes, 400 toys were sold out! In the next few weeks, over 20,000 springs were purchased! The “walking” spiral became a phenomenon toy!

Left his wife with a business and million-dollar debts 

James left his old job and started his own spring factory with Betty (which became known as James Industries and later as James Spring & Wire Company). The inventor developed equipment that produced one spring every 10 seconds. Within two years of production, over 100 million springs were sold for $1 each. In 1945, the toy attracted considerable interest at an exhibition in Philadelphia and the North American International Toy Fair in 1946. The James family became wealthy in just a few years. But the man changed drastically. He plunged into religion, secluded himself from society and lost interest in money. He seemed also to lose interest in his children and began to betray Betty. When he was caught, he frequented the church confessional. Almost all the earned money Richard gave to some religious groups…

Richard James with his son. 1940s.

In 1960, Richard James left his wife with six children and went to Bolivia to become a missionary in one of the religious organizations or perhaps even a cult. The family flatly refused to go with him or even hold correspondence with him. The company, drowning in millions of debts, ended up in Betty’s hands. She turned out to be an excellent leader. The factory not only regained its position but also prospered. Toys like the Slinky Dog, mini-spring, plastic spring and the famous jingle “It’s Slinky” appeared. Betty also started using bright-colored metal for making the toy.

Betty James passed away at the age of 90 in 2008. Richard died in 1974 at the age of 56, after 14 years of living in Bolivia. Their company was bought out by another company in 1998. 

Betty James at a mature age

Original Slinkys are only manufactured in the United States

From the first sales of the Slinky, by the end of the 20th century, over 300 million “walking” springs were sold worldwide. Today, you can find Slinkys in almost every toy shop around the planet. They come in both metal and plastic versions. Adults and children play with the spring alone or organize friendly races down the stairs (although it was created for children). It is worn as a bracelet and necklace as well as used as a garland, pen and pencil holder or even as a jumping rope. The US military used Slinkys as radio antennas in Vietnam. The famous coil even flew into space, where NASA used it in experiments on weightlessness. Doctors use Slinkys as a tool for developing coordination, therapy and stress relief (suggesting flipping the spring from hand to hand). Teachers demonstrate the body mass motion and the phenomenon of wave oscillations with the help of Slinkys. There are also other applications for this simple and unique toy.

Original Slinkys are made only in the United States, at the same factory in Pennsylvania and on the same equipment that Richard and Betty James worked with, which in 1945 produced the first batch of toys from black steel. The design of the toy has not changed for the past 80 years. Only its edges have been made safer to meet modern standards. This simple and ingenious invention is accessible to everyone. Slinkys have received many other names among the people, for example, onda, ondamania, andamania, rainbow and spiral.

The Slinky has its own records 

The toy has many achievements. From its origins to the present day, more than 50,000 tons of wire have been used to make Slinkys, which would be enough to wrap the Earth’s Equator over 120 times. The Discovery channel recognized the cool spring as one of the 10 iconic toys of the 20th century. It is included in the US National Toy Hall of Fame, alongside LEGO, Barbie and Monopoly. You can see the Slinky in one of New York’s most famous museums, the Metropolitan Museum of Art. In 2001, 82-year-old Betty James received a prestigious award from the Toy Manufacturers of America, and her name was inducted into the association’s Hall of Fame. The beloved toy also appeared on the big screen in various movies and cartoons. In 2007, the WIRED magazine named the Slinky the most desired Christmas gift. The spring surpassed many serious competitors, such as the Canon camera.

Understandably, the success of the Slinky has led to numerous imitations. Genuine Slinkys are sold in attractive packaging, with the brand guaranteeing quality and safety. They have only round shape (as butterfly or star springs can easily get entangled and do not “walk” well) and are not coated with paint. Fakes are often sold without packaging and painted in rainbow colors (this is a popular Chinese counterfeit, and the cheaper it is, the more likely the paint is harmful). Original Slinkys do not tangle because they have a wide ring profile, both in metal and plastic versions. Counterfeiters cut costs, so their rings are narrow and do not have the 1/5 aspect ratio as the original. Over decades of operation, the company has developed the perfect plastic formula for the Slinky: it is elastic, strong, and resistant to deformation.

But enough reading – hurry up and find your Slinky to play with!

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