Richard James Turning Failure into Success: The Story of the Slinky


It was 1943 when Philadelphia resident Richard James, no relation, was in his home laboratory trying to create a better system for keeping sensitive naval equipment steady in choppy seas when he discovered what would soon become a national craze. This happy accident was also to make him a very rich man and to delight boys and girls around the United States.


An accidental dropping of one of his springs yielded an unexpected discovery. The spring could actually move as if it was walking away from the site of the crash.  This became apparent as the spring fell from its shelf, fell onto one surface, and appeared to walk the rest of the way down a stack of books. Not to mention righting itself back into a standing position. Thus the Slinky was born.


After showing his wife Betty, who instantly recognized the marketability for this most peculiar spring, she knew it would be a great plaything as children would be fascinated by its ability to “walk” down stairs. Betty is also credited with naming the strange spring the Slinky. The couple later displayed the invention at a local department store. This sparked a 90 minute frenzy as over 400 were sold to eager parents and children.


The two then founded the James Industries in Pennsylvania to market and develop their product. To accommodate the intense demand for his invention, Richard James went on to develop machines that could coil as much as eighty feet of steel wire into a Slinky, all in the span of ten seconds. This is how the James’ kept up with the demand for Richards, re-purposed invention.


Although the Navy never really did find a use or even pay much attention to Richard James’ springs, he found a more reliable market. After the great success as a toy Richard’s invention became a teaching aid for physics students. The nature of the slinky was useful in showing the behavior of waves and for displaying the transfer of energy as it moved momentum from coil to coil to create it’s famous stair walking illusion.


Other uses involved American troops in Vietnam using Slinky like coils to boost antenna strength in the field, and even NASA has found them useful for their own scientific experiments. Who would not want to play with a Slinky in zero gravity, although it seems impossible for it to do the famous stair walking routine?


Although the toy’s popularity has waned it enjoyed a resurgence when the inventors created the Slinky Pup. This added a missing component to the children’s toy aspect: a cute little face. This boosted sales for a time as did the invention of a smaller more portable Slinky. A perfect stocking stuffer sized version of the Slinky, even going so far as to create a non-metallic plastic Slinky. Although plastic this Slinky was still durable enough to take a funky walk down the stairs or simply survive a rough chucking by over exuberant kids.

Share this article:

Tags and Categories:

This article is filed under: