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Unplugged

5 facts about classic toys

Unplugged

Ever wondered about the real length of a Slinky? Or how, exactly, an Etch A Sketch pulls off its magical disappearing act? You'll find these classics lurking in every toy closet, but how much do you really know about them? Read on for some curious facts about five legendary playthings.

How long is a Slinky?

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Twice the distance between one of its ends and the middle, of course.

An American invention, the Slinky was dreamed up by naval engineer Richard T. James, who hit upon the idea while working at a shipyard in Pittsburgh. Over 300 million have been sold in its 60-year history, earning James a fortune...which he abandoned in 1960 when he went nuts and disappeared to join a Bolivian religious cult. But that's all beside the point.

When compressed, a Slinky is about 2½ inches long. You could call that it's natural length; they're not made from long wires that are rolled into coils, but shaved in a circular pattern from lengths of metal pipe.

So how long would a Slinky be if you stretched it out in a completely straight line? Slinky sizes vary slightly, but a standard model will stretch 70-80 feet. If you did that with every Slinky ever sold, you'd have enough wire to circumnavigate the Earth nearly 200 times. But don't. A world full of ruined Slinkies is not a world in which we want to live.

How does an Etch A Sketch work?

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Delighting children since the 1960s, the Etch A Sketch's hard-to-master controls and erasable screen have been tapping the creative potential of generation after generation of children.

Or that's what it says here, anyway. Personally, all we could do with it is draw rectangles that don't quite join up.

But how does it work? It's pretty obvious that there's a pen inside, controlled by the knobs, that scratches a pattern on the other side of the Etch A Sketch's glass fascia. But what happens when you flip it over and shake to erase your scribblings?

Here's the secret. Inside the Etch A Sketch's shell is a quantity of powdered aluminum and some small plastic beads. The aluminum coats the inside surface of the screen, and is scratched off by the pen. When you shake it, the beads recoat the screen with powder, filling in the scratches, restoring its uniform gray appearance, and rendering your superb artwork a mere memory.

Are lawn darts really all that dangerous?

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If we had a dollar for all the tall tales we've heard about common objects causing horrific accidents, we'd have at least the price of a decent hamburger.

However, lawn darts are pretty much as dangerous as their reputation would have you believe. Although they're designed to be thrown more in a horizontal trajectory, people apparently can't resist throwing them straight up into the air as hard as they can. They typically return, point-downwards, traveling at considerable -- deadly, even -- velocity.

In the U.S., federal authorities banned them in 1988 after they caused at least three deaths -- including that of7-year-old Michelle Snow -- and thousands of injuries. Canada followed suit and banned them shortly afterwards. Nowadays lawn darts are back on the market, but they've ditched their metal points for safer plastic tips.

How to make a boomerang come back -- and why it works

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Numerous cultures around the world used these curved throwing sticks for hunting -- most notably the Aborigine people of the Australian continent, although they developed independently in prehistoric Europe and America as well. At some point, some bright hunter discovered that if you throw one just right, it will return to the thrower's hand. And a toy legend was born.

If you want to get it to work correctly, you'll need two things: a boomerang, and a gentle breeze. Boomerang pros can adjust to almost any wind conditions, but beginners do best with light winds of a few miles per hour. Stand so the wind is blowing slightly to the right (or left) side of your face, not head on or from behind. Throw the boomerang in a flattish trajectory, not too high, and angled almost (but not quite) perpendicular to the horizon. Voila, it'll return to you (with a little practice).

As to why a boomerang comes back, to cut a longish, aerodynamics-packed story short, it's all down to the shape of the blades. Rather like tiny airplane wings, as they cut through the air they produce a sideways force that acts to steer the spinning projectile in a gentle circle.

Where did Barbie get her name?

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She's the most famous doll in the world, but she wasn't born that way.

Barbie's story starts 52 years ago, in 1959, with Denver-born businesswoman Ruth Handler. At the time, American girls were fixated on paper dolls -- but Handler spotted a three-dimensional, molded German doll while traveling in Europe, and was inspired to launch her own range of dolls back home. She would name her creation after her daughter, Barbara -- and Barbie's longtime beau Ken is named for Ruth's son, Kenneth.

Barbie dolls would catapult Mattel -- which was originally a picture framing company started by Handler's husband -- to international prominence. Ruth went on to take the helm of the company and died in 2002; Barbara, however, is very much alive and well, and recently told her story on Oprah, where she presented Winfrey with a one-of-a-kind "Oprah" Barbie.

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