They walk down stairs, work out on treadmills, and freeze in mid-air, but have you ever wondered how a simple steel torsion spring became one of the world's best-selling toys? Join us as we take a look inside the curious history of the Slinky -- surely the world's most famous coiled-metal device. (OK, it's got some competition from the paper clip and the plumber's snake, but it's up there, right?)
Its inventor discovered it by accident
Like many great toys -- the Frisbee, the stylophone, and Silly Putty, to name but a few -- the Slinky's discovery was a happy accident.
Its inventor, Richard James, was toiling in a Pennsylvania workshop trying to develop a vibration-isolated horsepower meter for use on battleships. He accidentally dropped a spring, and, noticing how it flipped end-over-end and carried on moving after hitting the ground, realized he could have a toy goldmine on his hands.
The Slinky was a sell-out hit at its department-store debut in late 1945, and over 300 million Slinkies later, they're one of the most famous toys in the world.
But it wouldn't have been "Slinky" without his wife
Richard James discovered the Slinky, but it was his wife Betty who named it after happening upon the word "slinky," meaning sinuous or sleek, in a dictionary.
It'd be her first contribution to the Slinky's story, but not her last. Richard went nuts during the 1960s and ran off to Bolivia, leaving her as CEO of the company they both had founded. She did a fine job of it, too, piloting it to its present-day success, and piloting herself into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame in 2001. She died eight years later at the ripe old age of 90.
It's not the same as it used to be
Is nothing sacred? Indeed, today's Slinky is different from James's original design, but only in one miniscule detail. It's so miniscule, in fact, that you could probably be comparing the old and new models side-by-side and not spot it. Any guesses?
Forget size, shape and material -- the tweak was on the very tips of the wires. Old Slinkies had sharp ends; newer ones have crimped tips. Who knows how many people have had their eyesight saved by the revamp?
It's a war hero
Slinkys are well known for their travel proclivities, but the wiry toy has gone a lot further than just down your staircase.
During the Vietnam War, U.S. soldiers reportedly carried small Slinkys in the field -- not as cheap entertainment, but to extend the range of their radios by running them up trees as extra long antennae. Handy!
It's longer than it looks
Part of what makes a Slinky slink is that it's a lot longer than it lets on.
An unstretched Slinky is just 2 ¼ inches long. You can tease it out to about 15 feet without doing any permanent damage. But if you stretch it out completely, it extends to almost 500 times its original length -- a whopping 87 feet. Feel free to verify this figure, but we suggest using someone else's Slinky…it'll never be the same again.
It birthed advertising's longest-running jingle
All together now...
Written by real-life Mad Men types Homer Fesperman and Charles Weagley back in 1963, the Slinky jingle has been in use for almost half a century -- and although it's been parodied by the likes of Ren and Stimpy and sung by artists as eminent as Eddie Murphy, it's still the same as it's always been.