“Everyone wants a slinky: You want to get a slinky” chirps one of the most popular jingles of all time—and it’s right. For kids of the 21st century, the 72-year-old Slinky is ubiquitous. Few toys have been more popular, with more than 350 million units sold. The Slinky has gone to space, to war, to Hollywood (thanks to Slink the Slinky Dog in “Toy Story”), down your staircase and beyond.
But for a product that prides itself on simplicity—after all, it’s just a spring—the successful Slinky has a long, strange and storied history that begins with a naval engineer during WWII. And a bit of luck.
In the early 1940s, Richard James, a mechanical engineer by trade, was tasked with developing tools for submarines and iron ships. An entrepreneur and inventor at heart since a young age, James was determined to improve the stabilization of ships so instruments could be used during all weather and sea conditions. He was experimenting with a precompressed helical spring in 1943 when he accidentally knocked the tool from a shelf. He watched amusedly when the potential energy from the coil’s descent converted into kinetic energy, causing the spring to travel end over end down an inclined plane. James was overwhelmed by curiosity, seeing the possibility to make the spring “walk” effortlessly with a perfect combination of wire types and tensions. Plus, it was downright fun to play with.
After further tinkering with this mysteriously entertaining toy—and a clever name from his wife—the Slinky was born.
From shipyard to toy store
James quickly filed a patent for the toy in August 1946, which was approved in 1947, and formed James Spring and Wire Company LLC after securing $500 from a friend. The original Slinky, produced in a local machine shop, was 2.5 inches tall with 80 feet of “high-grade blue-black Swedish steel wire” wrapped into exactly 98 coils.* After convincing toy stores to sell the simple product through demonstrations and sheer will, James invented his own machine to mass produce Slinkys in a fraction of the time.
James sold 100 million units of the Slinky in the first two years, earning the modern-day equivalent of $1 billion in revenue. He rolled out several new toy models—including the aforementioned Slinky Dog—and his patent earned him millions by allowing varied industries to sublicense his design: “the toys had been integrated as light fixtures, gutter protectors, wave motion coils, therapeutic devices, and antennas.”* The Slinky also was licensed by other toy manufacturers who produced spring-centered toys.
To debt and back again
But smart business acumen and protected intellectual property could not save James from himself. Unbeknownst to his family, James had run his seven-figure business into severe debt—donating millions to a Bolivian religious cult, which he ultimately joined in 1960. With Slinky sales in decline, his wife, who had given the invention its legendary name, became the sole proprieter of the product.
Mrs. James triumphed at the helm of the Slinky empire. She launched a hugely popular advertising campaign, reduced manufacturing costs, kept the toy at an affordable price and even landed a deal with animation studio Pixar (which launched the Slinky back into popularity in the ’90s), all while raising their six children. She ultimately sold the company to Poof Products Inc. in 1998 after serving as the company’s president for 38 years, and passed away in 2008.
As the James family knew, even the simplest ideas should be protected. A 70-year-old patent, filed by hand from a workroom during the second world war, remains one of the most lucrative protections of intellectual property the toy industry has ever seen—withstanding the test of time, outlasting countless fads and even surviving the foils of its inventor.