The year was 1943. As the Battle of the Atlantic raged in the waters around Europe, the US Navy needed a constant supply of new ships, and one of the many shipbuilders working round the clock was Philadelphia’s Cramp Shipbuilding Company. Among its more than 18,000 workers was a mechanical engineer named Richard James.
James was trying to develop a new tension spring which would 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 for a new toy. He told his wife, Betty, about the experience, and she started looking through the dictionary to come up with a name for the new walking spring. Betty finally found a word she was happy with, a word which meant sinuous and graceful—just the way the spring moved and sounded as it flopped along. The word she came up with was “slinky.”
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.
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. ($1 in 1945 is equivalent to $13.50 today.)
The toy became a national phenomenon by the 1950s. But as the decade wore on, James’s personal interest in the business waned. He became enthralled with a religious cult in Bolivia, and he began donating money to the group shortly after. One morning in 1960, James told his family he was moving to Bolivia to join the cult and serve as a missionary. He said that all were welcome to join him, but his family, Betty and their six children, chose to remain in Pennsylvania.
James died in Bolivia in 1974, and Betty served as the president of James Industries for the next 38 years. As one of her first orders of business, Betty established a factory in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania. From there, the Slinky, the result of a simple mishap, cemented its reputation as one of the most identifiable toys in America
Betty finally retired at the age of 80 in 1998, and two years later, the Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. Betty passed away at 90 in 2008.