The American inventor and toymaker Richard James (1914–1974) was the inventor of the Slinky. With help from his wife, Betty Mattas James, he built it into one of the most popular toys of all times, with sales of at least 300 million units.
Richard Thompson James was born on January 1, 1914; most sources give his birthplace as Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, but one states that he was born in Delaware. James's family encountered hard times during the economic depression of 1920 and 1921, and as an imaginative child, he took to making toys out of household scraps, including springs. His mechanical ability grew from childhood, and at age 13, he discovered a 1923 Buick abandoned in the woods and repaired it to the point where it could be operated and sold.
After high school, James attended Pennsylvania State University, graduating in 1939 with a degree in mechanical engineering. He married Betty Mattas, a fellow Penn State student who dropped out when they decided to start a family.
During World War II, James worked for Cramp's Shipyard in Philadelphia, testing materials to be used in marine torsion meters, instruments that measured the twisting forces exerted on ships at sea. These meters had to be precision engineered for accuracy, and they were mounted on springs to reduce the vibration to which they might be subjected by a ship's engines, gunfire, or ocean waves. It was James's job to test different materials for use in designing springs for this purpose. He worked in a shop with hundreds of coil springs on shelves.
One of the most fortunate accidents in the history of toys occurred in 1943, when James knocked a spring off his desk or a shelf (accounts differ) and watched it flip end over end down some stacked books all the way to the floor. Immediately sensing that he had discovered something new, he told his wife that he wanted to experiment with coils of different composition and tension. He also brought the spring home to show to his young son. Tommy James may have been the first person to set a Slinky in motion at the top of staircase and watch it descend, step by step, to the bottom, and his young friends became fascinated by the toy as well. The name Slinky was devised by Betty James, who pored over a dictionary and finally settled on a word that suggested both sensuous grace and the sound the spring made as it moved.
James, meanwhile, was refining the slinky through a process of home-based research. “Our house was a mess while I experimented,” he recalled to Jay Morehouse of the Delaware County Daily Times in 1948. “I concluded that a flat ribbon of wire with no snap, or to be scientific, one with zero tension and compression, worked best.” The idea of making the Slinky in colors was temporarily shelved. “So, Slinky emerged as a plain steel ribbon 75 feet long wound into 98 coils,” James told Morehouse. With funds short, James in 1945 paid a piston ring manufacturing shop in Philadelphia to make 450 Slinkies, the most he could afford. He landed a well-paid job with an air conditioner maker but quit after three months to pursue the Slinky idea. He formed a new firm of his own, James Spring & Wire Company, with the help of a $500 loan from a friend. The company would later be renamed James Industries.
Marketing the Slinky was a challenge at first. A toy store called Jonas’ Top Shop took a dozen on consignment, but toy buyers from major retailers, fascinated by the new generation of battery-operated toys, were resolutely uninterested in the low-tech Slinky. “This is the atomic age in toys. Kids want big, bright, fancy things with lots of color and lights,” one said, as quoted by Priceonomics online. “An old beat up spring! We couldn't give that thing away if it played God Bless America and picked the daily double at Hialeah as it walked down the steps.” Undaunted, James pitched the toy to Gimbels, a large department store in downtown Philadelphia. Gimbels agreed to market the toy in November of 1945, but, enclosed in boxes in the middle of a holiday display, the Slinkies went unsold.
Finally Richard and Betty James decided to do the marketing themselves. James gave his wife one dollar—the cost of a Slinky at the time—and asked her to come to Gimbels 90 minutes later. That way, he reasoned, the toy would notch at least one sale. He set up a Slinky display and engaged nearby children to play with a Slinky. By the time Betty James arrived, 400 Slinkies had been sold, including some that had not even been put in boxes. A crowd waving dollar bills demanded more, but James had none to sell. By Christmas, more than 20,000 Slinkies had been sold.
The classic Slinky packaging was a plain black box that proclaimed the Slinky “the famous walking spring toy,” and with sales springing through the early 1950s, spinoff products began to appear. Produced by James, these included a Slinky train named Loco, a Slinky worm (Suzie), and Slinky eyeballs. The most famous of these, the Slinky Dog featured in the 1995 animated film Toy Story, first appeared in 1952. It, like several other Slinky spinoffs, had been suggested by a customer, who then received an annual $65,000 royalty.
James prospered as a result of the Slinky's success, and he and Betty purchased a 12-acre estate in the upscale Philadelphia suburb of Bryn Mawr. Not all was well in the couple's personal life, however. An extrovert who craved attention, James also indulged in extramarital affairs, and Betty accepted this, keeping the well-being of the couple's six children in mind. Further problems came during the 1950s, when he became involved with Wycliffe Bible Translators, an evangelical group founded in 1942, and began giving large amounts of his fortune to the firm. Betty considered Wycliffe a religious cult; she had attended an evangelical meeting sponsored by the firm and had come away unimpressed. In February of 1960, James stepped away from involvement in James Industries, offering the company to his wife and children, and in July he moved to Bolivia to become active in Wycliffe's missionary work there.
James wrote to Betty several times, asking her her to join him in South America, but she did not answer. Little is known of the last 14 years of his life. He died in Bolivia, reportedly of a heart attack, in 1974. Meanwhile, sales of the Slinky had finally begun to slow in the late 1950s, and Betty James, dealing with her husband's departure and mismanagement of the family fortune, was almost bankrupt by 1961. She rebuilt the company, moving production to her hometown Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, where it remained into the 21st century. After juggling creditors, in 1962 she began expanding television advertising that featured a catchy “Everyone wants a Slinky; you want to get a Slinky” jingle. Sales rebounded and the company introduced new products, including a rainbow-colored plastic Slinky, before Betty James sold it to Poof Products in 1998.
The Slinky depends on a physical principle called Hooke's Law, which states that the force needed to extend (or compress) a spring by a certain distance is proportional to that distance—if a Slinky is extended by dropping it down a step, a consistent force will be available to keep it going. As of 2008, when Betty James died in Hollidaysburg, more than 300 million Slinkies had been sold. Richard James's accidental creation was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2000.
Van Dulken, Stephen, Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the World, New York University Press, 2000.
New York Times, December 6, 1987; November 24, 2008, p. B10.
Delaware County Daily Times, August 26, 1948, Jay Morehouse, “‘Slinky’ … Walking Wire Coil Brings Fame, Fortune and Headaches to Dick James,” p. 13, accessed at http://www.slinkyprint.com/old_news_article.pdf .
Inc. online, http://www.inc.com/ (November 11, 2015), Bill Murphy Jr., “Here's the Weirdest Billion Dollar Toy Story Ever.”
Priceonomics, https://priceonomics.com/ (December 3, 2014), Zachary Crockett, “The Invention of the Slinky.”❑