Accidental Creativity: the Slinky
By Stephen Bucaro
Many times being creative is not optional. You must be creative in order to earn
a living or to keep your job. That's when you need to use the techniques described
on this website. But many people have created important things that made them
famous or rich entirely by accident. Here's one example:
In 1943, a naval mechanical engineer named Richard James was working on developing
a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive instruments aboard ships.
He accidentally knocked one of the springs off his bench, and watched as the spring
"walked" across the floor to a stack of books, and re-coiled itself to stand upright.
When James got home he told his wife, Betty, about how the spring walked across the floor.
She was doubtful, so James brought the spring home and demonstrated that indeed the
spring could be made to walk across the floor. Neighborhood children became excited
when the spring was demonstrated to them.
They decided to try to sell the spring as a toy. The couple borrowed $500 to start
a company named James Industries. Betty named the toy Slinky after the sound the
metal spring made as it walked across the floor. James Industries had 400 Slinkys
made by a local machine shop, hand-wrapped each in yellow paper, and priced them at $1 each.
The Jameses could not find a toy store that was interested in selling Slinkys but,
in November 1945, Gimbels department store in Philadelphia agreed to let them
set up an inclined plane in the toy section to demonstrate the toy. Slinky was
a hit, selling 400 units within ninety minutes.
Richard James developed a machine that could produce a Slinky within seconds, and
opened James Industries manufacturing shop in Albany, New York. In 1952, James Industries
created the Slinky Dog toy. Other Slinky toys introduced in the 1950s included the
Slinky train, Slinky worm, and a pair of glasses with had Slinkys with attached
plastic eyeballs that they called Crazy Eyes.
James Industries licensed the patent to several other manufacturers including
Wilkening Mfg. Co. of Philadelphia which produced spring toys such as Mr. Wiggle's
Leap Frog and Mr. Wiggle's Cowboy.
In its first 5 years, James Industries sold 100 million Slinkys with revenue, adjusted
for inflation, of 6 billion dollars. Over 300 million Slinkys were sold between 1945
and 2005, and even today the original Slinky is still a bestseller.