The eccentric engineer

E&T recounts the spring story behind a very Christmassy piece of engineering.

Christmas has been in the shops since September, so it would be criminal not to tell the story behind a very Christmassy piece of engineering and one which may well have sparked the interest of many children in a future engineering career.

It was December 1945 when Richard James walked into Gimbel's Department store in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania armed only with a wooden board and 400 small, paper-wrapped packages. In the toy department, he was shown to his demonstration stand where he set his board on a slope, opened one of the packets and tentatively began. Outside - and unknown to Richard - his wife Betty and a friend were preparing to become his first customers in the hope that an initial sale might inspire others. They just hoped they weren't his only buyers as, with dollar bills in hand, they plunged into the throng.

The idea that Richard James, a naval engineer, was hoping to sell that day had come to him a couple of years earlier when he had been working at in Philadelphia's Cramp shipyard. He had been tasked with devising damping equipment to mount sensitive horsepower meters in the engine-rooms of battleships and was experimenting with arrangements of torsion springs. During one of these experiments, he had casually knocked one of these springs off the table and noted something odd. Instead of just falling to the floor in a heap, the spring rolled end on end, almost walking off the table onto the floor.

Now James was something of an inventor; indeed, his was probably the only home in Philadelphia with ice-cold cola on tap, courtesy of the compressor he had installed to pump the drink from the cellar straight into the fridge. As such, his wife was not surprised when he came home saying he thought he had invented a wonderful new toy. James set to work looking for a steel with the correct properties which could be coiled to the right tension to make a 'walking spring'. When he showed the prototype to his neighbours' children, even Betty was persuaded by their enthusiasm.

With a $500 loan they set up the grandly named James Industries and spent most of the money at a local machine shop having those 400 springs - which James now hauled into Gimbel's department store - manufactured. The rest of the cash went on single-colour printed sheets of instructions, which Betty would wrap around the spring to form its packaging. With the 400 springs ready to go, all they needed was a name for their toy. After scouring the dictionary for hours, Betty found a word meaning 'stealthy, sleek and sinuous'. The word was 'Slinky'.

That was what had brought Naval Engineer Richard to the toy department at Gimbel's and Betty to the doorway. But as Betty approached the Slinky stand, she saw that a fake purchase would be wholly unnecessary. Richard was surrounded by real customers. He sold all 400 Slinkys, and one of the iconic toys of the 20th century was born.

The following year the Slinky was the most talked-about toy at the US toy trade-fair and James Industries opened its own shop. Betty set about upgrading their packaging to a simple box, while Richard devised a machine that could coil the 80ft of wire in a Slinky into the requisite 98 coils in just under 11 seconds. By 1950, the toy was so successful he'd had to build another five, all of which are still in operation today.

But it was not to be all fairytale endings. In 1960, Richard James suddenly decided to leave his business, his wife and his six children and join a "religious cult" in Bolivia. Betty took over the company and paid off the large debts that had arisen from her husband's lavish donations to his new Bolivian friends. Moving the toy business back to her home town of Holidaysburg, she not only saw off striking steel workers, but introduced innovations such as the goggle-eyed Slinky glasses, the Slinky dog and the plastic Slinky. In 1998, aged 80, she finally agreed to sell the company, so she could spend more time with her family. 

But the James' best-selling toy remains the original Slinky, whose only alterations over the past half century have been the introduction of crimped ends (for safety reasons) and the transition from Swedish blue steel to a cheaper American one. There is a Slinky in the Smithsonian, one has been in space, and the toy has even been honoured with its own stamp. But most importantly, over 300 million have been sold.

Winner of the issue 18 caption competition was Mark Everson with "At last, a working broadband connection!"

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