The Story of the Slinky

How one klutzy move launched a toy empire.

In the early 1940s, the nation's energies were bent on victory in Europe. American industry revolved around war production. On the grounds of Cramp's shipyard in Philadelphia, where wartime employment peaked at 18,000, Richard James would have been among scores of engineers urgently devising plans for new naval battleships.

Designing delicate sea-bound instruments in the midst of this melee, an entirely non-military application caught James' attention. He reportedly knocked a tension spring off a shelf and as it slid to the ground, thought to himself that it could make a good toy.

Here's where the successful inventor departs from the rest of us. Not only did James think it, but he spent the better part of a two years experimenting with different lengths and metallurgical formulas until he produced the familiar, elegant spring that could walk down stairs.

His wife, Betty, picked the name "slinky" from the dictionary, and showing remarkable confidence in the product of her husband's tinkering, she joined him in founding James Industries on a $500 loan.

The next famous scene in Slinky history has the pair arriving at Gimbel's Department Store in Philadelphia on a snowy day before Christmas, where Richard James ran his Slinky's down a sloped board. Crowds of customers clutched dollar bills. The couple sold out their stock of 400 toys in an hour and a half.

Richard James would become the company's first face and eventually he seemed to succumb to the success and fame (yes, fame!) that came with the Slinky's popularity. He did the TV circuit, made increasingly large donations to shady religious charities. When he finally decided to move to Bolivia to join a religious cult his wife, Betty James, chose the slinky.

She moved her six children and the company to her western Pennsylvania hometown of Hollidaysburg. She brought along her husband's original slinky-manufacturing equipment, still in use today. She launched the company's television advertising. The Slinky got a TV jingle (a variation of which appears in the video above).

"What walks down stairs,
Alone or in pairs,
And makes a slinkity sound?

It's Slinky..."

She was the one who finally realized the profits of the invention and extended the Slinky empire: literally.

When she passed away in 2008, the New York Times did the math. The paper found that enough Slinkys had been sold to circle the globe 150 times. 

Nowadays, Slinky might be a throwback to a simpler toy era, but it's also fueled by a Connecticut private-equity firm and sells more than 500 products based on the concept and image of the original.

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Emma Jacobs is an independent journalist based in Philadelphia. She's a frequent contributor to NPR and other national publications and an urban enthusiast.

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