Accidental Inventions — The Slinky

How a spring originally designed for ships became a popular selling children’s toy.

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The year was 1943 and the war in the Atlantic was raging.

With the US Navy demand for ships at an all time high, the country’s ship yards were kept extremely busy.

In Philadelphia, employees at the Cramp Shipbuilding Company were working round the clock to meet their government quota.

Richard James worked in the engineering department and was tasked with working on a new design of spring to reduce the movement of the ship’s equipment in heavy seas.

One day, as he was working on a prototype, he knocked it off the bench top and it fell to the floor.

Instead of bouncing back up as expected, it walked itself across the room. It instantly sparked a thought in the mechanical engineer’s mind.

What if the spring was made into a child’s toy?

He spoke to his wife about the discovery and she agreed to help him come up with a suitable name. Thumbing through the dictionary one day she settled on a word that perfectly matched the way the spring moved: Slinky.

After a year or so of tinkering with the material’s thickness and length, the couple took out a modest loan and applied for a patent.

It wasn’t long before the toy became a big hit but then the story took a strange turn.

James lost interest in his invention and became deeply involved with a religious cult in Bolivia. He sent the organisation money and eventually left his family and six children in 1960 to live over there.

His wife Betty took over the company and it continued to expand under her watch. She remained head of the company until she sold it in 1998 aged 80.

In the late 1990s, the Slinky enjoyed a resurgence in popularity due to the Pixar film Toy Story which featured a character based on the toy’s design.

In 2000, the Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. That same year, it was named the official toy of Pennsylvania.

Not a bad result for something that started out as an accident.

If you enjoyed this post you might also enjoy Accidental Inventions — The Microwave and Accidental Inventions — Safety Glass.

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