We often believe that things are invented by people who get an idea and then work to make that idea a reality. The truth is that things don’t always work out that way. Sometimes the inventors are working to build one thing and find that they have made something else entirely. Take the Slinky – A toy that has fascinated children for the past 75 years. This wonderful gadget was invented in a shipyard during World War II by a mechanical engineer named Richard James who was trying to make springs sensitive enough to keep a ship’s fragile equipment steady in rough seas.
One day, while at work, James accidentally knocked over one of his springs, and down it went, “walking” in a series of arcs from the shelf, to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and, finally, on to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. James and his wife, Betty, realized that this crazy-acting spring could be a toy, and Betty began digging through the dictionary for a name. Eventually, she decided on the name “Slinky” because the word described the sinuous movement and the soft sound of the spring when it was in motion.
But Americans just couldn’t bring themselves to think that a plain old coil spring could be a toy, and it was hard to get the toy stocked in stores. So, around Christmas of 1945, the Jameses arranged for Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia to set up a ramp in the toy department that would allow customers to watch a Slinky smoothly walk from its top to its bottom. They brought 400 Slinkys with them to this demonstration, and, after showing folks what this little toy could do, they sold every one of them in just 90 minutes. (Do the math. It’s crazy!).
Since then, over 300 million Slinkys have been sold, a fortune has been made, and the toy has become an iconic part of American childhood. The gadget has been inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame and is part of MOMA’s Architecture and Design collection. In addition, the jingle created to advertise the Slinky is the longest running one in television broadcasting history.
The Slinky has been put to use in a variety of ways over the years. Soldiers in Viet Nam used it as a mobile radio antenna, Space Shuttle astronauts used it to demonstrate the effects of zero gravity, and street performers have used it in near-magical ways to entertain passersby. But it is as a deterrent to squirrels trying to dine at your birdfeeder that the Slinky really shines. To set this up, put the pole of your feeder up through the middle of the Slinky, and attach it so the bottom is about two feet off the ground. Then sit back and enjoy the show. The squirrels will jump up on to the Slinky and get a quick ride right back down again. Watching them do this is sure to get a smile from everyone who witnesses their antics.
If you can find the perfect set of stairs, you can try to top the Guinness World Record of 30 stairs descended by a Slinky or gather 1,055 different Slinkys to beat the current record for Slinky collections. But, if nothing else, you can hang-out with the kids and enjoy their amazement as the spring glides from one hand to the other, and be amazed at how so much happened because, one day, a long time ago, someone knocked a spring off the shelf.