The History of the Slinky

Some of the greatest inventions in the world happened by accident.

Silly String was supposed to be an instant spray-on cast used for medical purposes until its inventors accidentally sprayed a whole canister across the room. The McVickers Soap Company originally created Play-Doh as a substance for cleaning wallpaper. And Silly Putty was the result of a doctor trying to create synthetic rubber during World War II. But another childhood memory was born around that time ...

In the early 1940s, a 25-year-old Navy engineer working in a shipyard was trying to create a meter that could observe the horsepower of battleships. The engineer, Richard James, used a variety of tension springs in his horsepower meter’s design, but could never quite get the right torsion.

One day, a spring dropped to the ship’s floor. James watched as this spring didn’t just fall to the ground but continued moving. He told his wife Betty that he could probably fashion it into a toy. Eventually, she found the perfect name while looking through the dictionary, and thus the Slinky was born. Well, at least the idea for the toy.

James spent a couple years experimenting on the right type of steel wire, one that was thin enough with the right tension and weight. (The spring that originally fell to the ship’s floor was comparatively thick and heavy.) Once he found the steel wire in that “Goldilocks zone,” he patented the toy.

Next came winding 80 feet of this perfect wire 98 times into a stacked coil 2.5 inches high. The Slinky can “walk” because of this coiled perfection. It transfers the energy from the first “push” along the length of the coil in what is known as a longitudinal wave. This is possible because there is no tension or compression. It’s the closest a toy comes to perpetual motion. Hypothetically, the Slinky would continue down an infinite staircase, end over end, until acted upon by a different outside force.

Once Richard James had perfected his design, he took out a loan for $500, which today would be around $7,500 to $8,000. He used the money to create a Philadelphia-based company, James Industries, and produce his new invention. With his company as backing, he was able to score shelf space inside Philadelphia’s famous Gimbels Department Store. Gimbels stocked 400 Slinky toys that November day, priced at $1 each (about $15 to $20 in today’s dollars). Ninety minutes later, all 400 Slinkys were sold. They would go on to sell 20,000 before Christmas and over 250,000 throughout the following year. At the two-year mark, 100 million.

Betty wasn’t just instrumental in the toy’s naming but also in coming up with additional products incorporating the original Slinky. Remember the Slinky Truck and Slinky Crazy Eyes? Or how about “Slink” from Pixar’s Toy Story?

But by the end of the 1950s, James did a one-eighty. He abruptly left his company, wife, and children behind to move to Bolivia with a religious cult he’d become affiliated with. Little is known about this religious group—some accounts say it was the Wycliffe Bible Translators of America—but Betty was mortified by them, according to an interview with her in 2001. James ultimately funneled his company’s fortunes to the sect, leaving it and his family in financial turmoil and dying of a heart attack in 1974.

Betty, however, was resilient. In 1963, she brought the Slinky to a New York toy show, complete with a catchy jingle to play on TV, and the toy resurged. By the end of the 1990s, the History and Discovery Channels named the Slinky one of the 20th Century’s Top 10 Toys. Following that win, the toy earned several accolades:

  • 1999: Slinky gets its own USPS Postage Stamp
  • 2000: National Toy Hall of Fame Inductee
  • 2001: Betty becomes Toy Industry Association Hall of Fame Inductee

Betty James passed away in 2008 at the age of 90. Today, the Slinky brand belongs to Michigan-based toy company Poof Products. In celebration of National Slinky Day on August 30, check out The Original Metal Slinky, which comes in classic silver, anodized black, or giant classic silver. For the collector in you, upgrade to the 14-Karat Gold-Plated Slinky.

Words by Jennifer Cameron