It was 1943, and Richard was an engineer solving a problem for the US Navy. He was trying to isolate sensitive electronic equipment from the continual motion caused by rough seas, and thought the equipment could be suspended by springs.
He tried hundreds of different springs, and they cluttered his desk. At some point, one of the springs accidently slipped off his worktable and fell onto the ship’s deck where it landed on its end. It took a bounce, flipped onto its other end, and continued to move even further away.
Richard had work to do, and dropping things was annoying. But, at the same time, it was also pretty funny to see that coiled spring saunter along. He took it home to demonstrate it to his kids. His young son put it on top of the stairs, and watched in amazement as the front of the coiled spring stretched to the step below, then began to seemingly walk itself down the stairs.
His boy laughed hilariously. Soon other neighborhood kids were crowding around the stairs in his home.
Richard though he might have a hit on his hand. He told his wife Betty, “I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk!”
Richard kept his day job, and over the next couple years their house filled with coiled springs of every conceivable dimension. He found a flat ribbon wire worked best, and settled on a ribbon 75 feet long, and coiled 98 times.
They needed a name for their creation, and Betty searched the dictionary for inspiration. She came up with the word “Slinky.” That seemed to capture what the product did.
The borrowed $500, and produced a quantity of 400 Slinkys.
People didn’t seem to want it. One storekeeper said “This is the atomic age. Kids want big, bright, fancy things with lots of color and lights. An old beat up spring!? We couldn’t give that thing away…“
But the James’ persisted.
At Christmas time, they talked Gimbels department store into letting them set up a ramp in the toy department to demonstrate the “Slinky” walking down the incline. They brought 100 to the store and priced the toy at $1.
Kids loved it. All 100 sold.
Richard ran to get the remaining 300 units. Although these weren’t even yet packaged, people were holding up their $1 bills and buying the Slinkys as fast as they could. Betty said later it was hard to find her husband in the crowd of kids. They sold out in 90 minutes.
“We didn’t sleep that night” they said.
Since that day, there’ve been over 350 million Slinkys sold. They now come in a variety of sizes. There are even multi-colored Slinkys made from plastic, and of course the Slinky Dog, the dachshund from the animated film Toy Story.
Richard left the country in 1960 and joined a religious group in Bolivia. Betty ran the Slinky company as President from 1960 until 1998 when she sold the company for a “boatload of money.” She died in 2008 at the age of 90. Throughout her time, Betty always believed in keeping the price of the Slinky affordable. She wanted people to be able to afford the toy. She wanted kids to be able to play.
“So many children can’t have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them. I’m appalled when I go Christmas shopping and $60 to $80 for a toy is nothing.”
Everyone who’s ever played with a Slinky has gravity to thank for causing that coiled spring to fall off Richard’s desk and walk (down the steps) into our lives.
Einstein was talking about people when he said, “gravity is not responsible for people falling in love.”
But, gravity is responsible for people falling in love with Slinky.
Get your kids (or yourself) a Slinky. Play with gravity. Fall in love.