The remarkable, war-torn and space-traveling 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.

U.S. Patent and Trademark Office

James had little trouble getting toy stores to 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…

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