In the Coils of the Creator (Encouragement for Creators)


President George W. Bush declared it the national toy of the United States; and in his 2002 State of the Union address he stated, “I can not think of a recreational device that better exemplifies the inventiveness of the American spirit.”

Over the last 70 years it’s sold well over 300 million units.

It owes it’s unique ability to descend a staircase to “simple harmonic motion,” the mechanics of which are governed by Hooke’s Law and gravity. (Huh?!? Don’t worry about this particular point; we promise there won’t be a quiz.)

In 1995, it got a plum role in Pixar’s Toy Story. What on earth are we discussing? According to the popular jingle sung on numerous TV commercials, “a spring, a spring — a marvelous thing! Everyone knows it’s Slinky.” And it was created by accident!

In 1943, at a shipyard in Philadelphia, a naval mechanical engineer named Richard James was designing support springs that would be able to cushion and stabilize sensitive shipboard instruments during rough seas. He accidentally knocked one of his springs from a shelf, and was amazed to see it “step” down a stack of books, then walk across his worktable, before finally doing a summersault onto the floor. James the inventor instantly recognized a good thing, and he was ready to run with it. When he got home that evening, he told his wife, Betty, that he wanted to experiment further with the spring. He was convinced that — using the right properties of steel, and finding the perfect tension — he could create a toy that walked all by itself. James’ wife was skeptical, until — after a year of fiddling with various springs — HE DID IT!

James unveiled his creation to a group of neighborhood kids who all cheered the “sleek and graceful” new toy. Wife Betty decided to call it a Slinky, which means … um … “sleek and graceful.”  Trivia time: the original Slinky was two and a half inches tall and was made of 98 coils of high-grade blue-black Swedish steel. A local machine shop produced the first batch of 400 units; and initially, Richard and Betty James had trouble convincing toy stores to carry the product. The Gimbels department store in Philadelphia finally allowed the couple to set up an inclined plank in the toy section, where they demonstrated the Slinky to wide-eyed kids and their parents. Those first 400 units — each hand-wrapped in bright yellow paper and priced at $1 — sold out in 90 minutes.

But that’s nothing. During its first 2 years, the newly-formed James Industries sold 100 million Slinkys at a dollar apiece. Adjusting for inflation, that’s equivalent to $1 Billion!

In 1960, Richard James left the company, and Betty took sole ownership; and she continued to preside over the ever-growing business until 1998. During those 38 years, she insisted on keeping the price of the original Slinky affordable. Betty once told The New York Times, “So many children can’t have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them.”And what of Richard? After creating one of the most unique and unusual, most popular and profitable, toys ever known, what does a millionaire inventor do for an encore? Well, after leaving his company in 1960, Richard James became an evangelical missionary in Bolivia with Wycliffe Bible Translators. Strange? That’s not for us to decide.

But what’s the lesson in the Story of Slinky? That’s not for us to decide, either. There are several things we can take from this tale. For us to single out any one of them would minimize the others. What did YOU take from it?