They say some people are like Slinky’s — they’re not really good for anything, but they bring a smile to your face when you push them down a flight of stairs. If that’s what you think, be prepared for an argument from some of the more than 300 million people who have purchased a Slinky in the past 80 years, making it one of the most popular toys of all time.
Richard T. James came up with the idea for the Slinky in 1943. Working as a mechanical engineer, he was trying to develop springs that would stabilize sensitive equipment aboard naval vessels. After accidentally knocking some samples off a shelf, he watched in amazement as they gracefully “walked” down instead of falling.
The concept is almost laughingly simple. The spring always wants to return to its original shape, but it is compressed loosely enough to allow for easy stretching. Aside from the metal (and later, plastic) for the spring, there are no other parts. Gravity and physics power it as it performs any number of tricks, such as moving downstairs in a methodical manner or appearing to levitate for a moment when dropped.
Richard’s wife, Betty, came up with the name for the product while paging through a dictionary. She came across a word that means “sleek and graceful.” That seemed to fit this new product, so they dubbed the new toy the “Slinky.”
Richard and Betty took out a loan of $500 to produce the first Slinkys. They offered them for sale at Philadelphia’s Gimbels department store in November 1945. The public took an immediate liking to the new toy. Their inventory of 400 Slinkys sold out in 90 minutes.
Realizing they had come up with something very special, Richard and Betty formed James Industries in Clifton Heights, Pennsylvania, and started turning out the Slinky as fast as they could. Soon, they created derivative toys, such as the Slinky Dog and Suzie, the Slinky Worm.
In 1960, Richard left the company after he and Betty divorced. He became a missionary in Bolivia with Wycliffe Bible Translators. He died in 1974.
Under Betty’s leadership, the company moved to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania in 1964. In 1998, she sold the company to Poof Products, Inc.
Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame at The Strong in Rochester, New York, in 2000. In 2003, Slinky was named on the Toy Industry Association’s “Century of Toys List.”
Here are a few fun facts about the iconic toy:
- In 1999, the U.S. Postal Service issued a Slinky postage stamp.
- If you stretch a standard Slinky out flat, it measures 87 feet (26.5 meters) long.
- During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers used Slinkys as mobile radio antennas.
- In 1959, composer John Cage composed “Sounds of Venice” which incorporated the sound of an amplified Slinky.
- The Slinky is also used as a musical instrument in such pieces as Sans Escalier, Slinky Solo by Sonia Paço-Rocchia.
- The 2001-2002 session of the Pennsylvania General Assembly considered but did not enact House Bill 1983 to name the Slinky as the official state toy of Pennsylvania.
- NASA used the springy toy for zero-gravity psychics experiments in space.
- In its first 60 years, Slinky sold 300 million units.
- The jingle for the Slinky television commercial was created in Columbia, South Carolina in 1962 with Johnny McCullough and Homer Fesperman writing the music and Charles Weagly penning the lyrics. It became the longest-running jingle in advertising history.
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