How the classic Slinky toy was invented, plus see vintage variations

Vintage Slinky toys

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The original vintage Slinky toy was an all-metal spring that thrilled kids by ‘walking’ down stairs.

Invented by accident back in the forties, this old toy is one of the few that pretty much everyone alive today has played with — truly standing the test of time.

Find out how the classic Slinky was invented, and take a look at its history here — plus see some of the other toys in the product lineup!

Slinky inventor Dick James: Coil spring walking toy makes a hit (1949)

From Argus Leader (Sioux Falls, South Dakota) April 28, 1949

Engineer finds fortune in Slinky, sees constant market

If you ever had an idea and tried to turn it into money, the story of Dick James may interest you.

He taught a piece of coiled wire to walk downstairs. Now it makes him an excellent living.

James, a 31-year-old former marine engineer, is the inventor of “Slinky,” a revolutionary new mechanical toy.

Everybody loves Slinky - Vintage toys

Slinky is nothing but a 78-foot piece of high carbon clockspring steel wire arranged in 92 coils. He looks like an old-fashioned bedspring pressed flat — so the coils touch.

But Slinky can do things. A child can take him in his hands and play the coils back and forth like a silent accordion. Put Slinky on the top of a staircase and flip his top coil over, and Slinky will coil and uncoil his way down the stairs like a rhythmic snake.

“He changed my whole life,” said James, who has sold 2,500,000 Slinkys and expects to market another 1,000,000 this year.

Vintage Slinky Dog Toys (1955)

Simple as the gadget is, it took James several years of hard work to make it a success.

Back in 1943, he was working in a Philadelphia shipyard. He began fooling with some round elastic wire used to suspend meters that registered the horsepower output of ship machinery. 

“The coils of round wire wouldn’t stand up,” he said. “So just for fun, I had the company make me up a couple of dozen samples of flat wire.

“It wasn’t until the next year that I learned I could make the coils walk downstairs. My son Tom and the other kids in the neighborhood were fascinated.

Fascinates sick boy

“I gave one coil to a boy in bed with the mumps. His parents said he had had so much fun with it should sell the coils as toys. And my wife Betty, who’d thought I was foolish to spend two years tinkering with wire springs, agreed.”

But James found then how much resistance there is in the world against a new idea.

“The toy people wanted no part of Slinky,” he laughed. “Finally one department store agreed to let me use one end of a counter for an evening if I’d demonstrate the toy myself.

Old-fashioned metal Slinky toy
Photo by alex.stemmer/Deposit Photos

“I brought along 400 coils and sold them in an hour and a half. That convinced them. They gave me an immediate order for 5,000.”

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James had to borrow money to buy the coils from a factory that made them to his specifications. A month later, he quit his $5,000 a year marine engineering job.

“It was a hard gamble,” he said. “My family thought I was crazy to give up an engineering career over a toy.”

Granted patent

“Slinky mushroomed so fast that other companies began making the coils, figuring a patent application by James wouldn’t be granted.

“But I got the patent,” he grinned, “and that ironed out everything.”

Vintage Slinky toy patent (1946)

Now James is manufacturing the coils himself, and is arranging to have them made and sold in four foreign countries.

“I don’t think the toy will ever die out,” he said. “There are about 9,000,000 new kids coming along every year.”

James culled over several hundred thousand names before his wife suggested calling the bouncing coil “Slinky.”

“I was going to name it ‘Snaky,'” he recalled. “That would have been an awful mistake.”

James feels luck has played a large part in his good fortune.

“Hundreds of engineers have worked with elastic wire, and never thought of turning it into a toy,” he said. “Neither did I. If I had set out deliberately to develop a toy that would walk downstairs, I might have spent a lifetime on it.”

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Old Slinky toys - Satellite Beanie - Popup - Spinner (1958)

The original Slinky, Slinky Seal, Slinky Dog and other vintage ’50s toys (1957)

Insist on Slinky Toys – At your nearest toy counter

Original Slinky $1 / Slinky Soldiers $2 / Slinky Seal $1 / Slinky Handcar $2 / Slinky Spiral $1 / Slinky Dog $2

Slinky Worm – Slinky Train – Slinky Junior – Slinky Eyes – Slinky Bucko

James Industries, Paoli, Pennsylvania

Original Slinky, Slinky Seal, Slinky Dog and more (1957)

How to use Slinky

Place SLINKY on the top step of your stairs, then lift one end and let go, so that the end falls on the middle of the next lower step. SLINKY will then walk down the stairs step by step, or down an inclined surface.

(Fig. 1) Hold SLINKY in both hands, as shown in Fig. 2. First move one hand slightly above the other, now shift, raising the other hand to a slightly higher position. See how SLINKY moves as if he were alive. (Fig. 2)

A slight film of oil has been used to protect Slinky. If slightly sticky, wipe off with clean cloth.

How to use Slinky

Vintage Slinky TV commercial from the sixties

YouTube video

How the Slinky toy was invented (1950)

Teamwork in marriage: No time for tact

By Winifred Van Duzer — The Philadelphia Inquirer (Pennsylvania) April 30, 1950

Helping your husband rise from a $50-a-week employee to a wealthy manufacturer — within five years — is simpler than you think. If you don’t mind hard work.

It means tossing out matinees and afternoons at the hairdresser’s while you learn to juggle a shop with one hand and home and children with the other. It means learning how to do many things you’ve probably never even heard of.

And if you wind up as your husband’s business partner you’ll have to work harder than ever.

“But it’s fun,” says Betty James. “I can’t see why more wives don’t do it.”

At least partly as a result of Betty’s efforts, Richard T. (Dick) James now has a neat little factory — designed and practically built by himself — in suburban Clifton Heights. There a score of workers turns out a toy which is sold in 20 countries around the globe.

Subsidiary manufacturing goes on in Canada, England, France, Australia, Sweden. Plans for next year provide for newer products, more expansion.

Slinky inventor Dick James and wife (1950)

At Clifton Heights, in the pine-paneled office with flowered cretonne at the windows (Betty’s touch), she tells how it came about. You transform a husband, she says in effect, by breaking some of the rules laid down for successful marriage.

“You don’t manage him,” says Betty. “Dick wouldn’t stand being managed even if you were subtle about it. And you don’t let him think your ideas are his own. That would only set up confusion.”

“And,” interpolates Dick, whose desk backs up against his wife’s, “you forget all the cliches about tact. There’s no such thing as tact between Betty and me.

“We’re bluntly frank. When we disagree, which is often, we hash things over and straighten them out. And continue to be friends.”

James is a big, broad-shouldered, boyish-looking 31. He studied mechanical engineering at Penn State, where he was graduated in 1939. He did graduate work in marine engineering at the University of Virginia, and in naval architecture at the University of Pennsylvania.

When he was in his senior year at Penn State, a slender, dark-eyed, vivid girl from Altoona entered the school for a liberal arts course.

Betty Mattas was halfway through her sophomore year before he convinced her that she preferred marriage to higher education.

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Vintage Slinky Toys (1954) From ships to Slinkies

In 1943 they had settled down in a farmhouse which Samuel Johnson built a century ago in Brookline. Dick at that time was holding his $50-a-week job at the Cramp shipyard where he was in charge of test work on cruisers and submarines.

One day he threw down a spring which had what is described technically as “zero compression and zero tension” — in brief, no yumph.

The spring landed on a row of books, but didn’t remain there. Slowly its top coil flipped over to the next book, coil after coil following, then to the third book and across the row.

The effect was somewhat like a fat man doing an imitation of the late Bill Robinson’s famous staircase dance. When Dick stopped laughing, he put the spring in his pocket for his year-old son, Tommy.

Vintage Slinky Cater-Puller pull toy

That was the beginning of Slinky the toy (or is it a toy?) which walks down stairs, dances, goes through acrobatic antics for the current amusement of approximately four million children and adults.

Indirectly it also was the beginning of Slink’em. A mere two months old, Slink’em is a racing game in which two smaller editions of Slinky unfold themselves down a ramp to a set of winning or losing goals.

Dick contradicts published reports that Slinky, with an assist by Slink’em, has netted the Jameses $1,000,000.

“That estimate, he says, is “a little steep.” However, the profits are solid.

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Vintage Slinky Slink'Em game

Betty declares that it’s wholly Dick’s show. “He has done all that has been done,” she says. “He deserves all the credit.”

But he says she persuaded him to put Slinky on the market back in 1945.

And that it was her idea to paint the walking wire red, blue and green “because children like bright colors.”

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And that when he quit his job and went into production with a borrowed $500, she joined him in rounding up vouchers so they could keep their money turning. 

Then there was the time just before Christmas of 1947 when Dick was seriously ill in the hospital, and a strike of steelworkers cut off their supply of material.

“So what did she do?” Dick chuckles. “Why, she telephoned the president of the Pittsburgh Steel Company — the president, no less — and wangled steel to keep us going.”

Betty is somewhat puzzled by her husband’s amusement. “I only explained the situation. I just told the president he must be a very understanding man, or he wouldn’t have the position he had. It was quite simple, really.”

“Women!” says Dick. “They go in where men wouldn’t dare and win because they don’t know how things are done.”

Children of Slinky toy inventor Richard James

Intuition in business

But that only increases the value he places on his wife as a business partner. “She has wonderful intuition. After seeing her hunches work out, I depend on them.

“Definitely I think husbands and wives should be in business together if the children are old enough to go to school. And Betty is wrong when she says I deserve all the credit. What success we have is a mutual affair.”

Currently, Betty keeps an eye on the household, run by a dependable maid; takes Tommy, now 8, and his 5-year old sister, Libby, to and from school; turns housewife weekends and afternoons from three o’clock on.

The remainder of her time is spent at the Slinky plant. The program is a bit strenuous. “But,” she repeats, “it’s so much fun.”

Editor’s postscript: Betty took over the toy company around 1960, and pretty much had to rebuild it after Dick left her and their six children to join a religious cult in Bolivia.

The book “Why Didn’t I Think of That” by Robert L Shook (1982) says that in 1958, Richard James “announced that he no longer cared about the business — it was all worldly — and he wanted no part of it… Dick had given every cent of capital to the cult. James Industries was drained.”

Dick James died in Bolivia in 1974. Betty ran the company for many years, and was was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2001.

How most Slinkys end up: Tangled

A jumbled up snarled metal Slinky toy

MORE SPRINGS: Wonder horses! See vintage ride-on spring horse toys from the ’50s to the ’80s

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Comments on this story

2 Responses

  1. Don’t forget mr james about the real inventor Leonard t larson that made it n sold it to you by Gibson spring co in chicago. I was there and I know. Get it straight n admit it.

    1. I have added a little more information to the article, namely: Dick James died in Bolivia in 1974.

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