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Slinky (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

There is a song, a jingle, that's recognized by ninety percent of American adults. Its this: "It's Slinky, it's slinky, oh what a wonderful toy. It's Slinky, it's Slinky, fun for a girl and boy." Of course, that's the song for the slinky toy - a coil spring that walks down steps.

In 1943, Richard James, a naval engineer, was developing a spring that could keep sensitive instruments aboard warships steady in rough seas. Accidentally, he knocked one of his test springs off a shelf. It crawled, coil by coil, to a lower shelf, then onto a pile of books and finally came to rest on a table. This so enchanted James that when he got home he said to his wife "I think, if I could get the tension right, I could make it walk."

For two years Richard James worked to find the proper length and tension so it could walk perfectly down stairs. His wife, Betty, helped name this new spring. Flipping through the directory, she came across a word that meant "stealthy, sleek, and sinuous." That was, of course, "slinky."

By 1946, James had his Slinky ready to sell. On a Snowy day, he set off for the Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to sell them. His wife worried the no one would want a Slinky. She gave a friend a dollar to buy the first one, so her husband wouldn't feel bad. When Richard and Betty James stepped off the elevator that day, they saw across the sales floor a mass of people waving $1 dollar bills. Within ninety minutes they'd sold 400 Slinkys. For the next fifteen years, Slinky continued to sell well. But Betty James saw little of the profit. Richard had, in her words, joined a "religious cult" and was giving them all the profits. By 1960 he left his wife and family to join this group in Bolivia, never to return to see his family again. Betty took over the Slinky company, now nearly bankrupt, and turned it into a multimillion dollar enterprise.

The company uses the same machines that Betty's husband designed in 1945. No one has ever been able to build better machines. So important are they to making Slinkys, that no one is ever allowed to photograph them, for fear foreign competitors could copy the machines and bootleg Slinkys.

The machines make a slinky in about ten seconds by coiling a sixty-three foot metal wire into eighty-nine coils. When finished the machine drops the slinky which pops up, walks down a step, and steps into its own box. This isn't just for fun. A slinky wound too tight or too loose won't walk down the step and into the box correctly, and are rejected.

Two hundred and fifty million Slinkys, though, have walked into their own boxes since 1945. And Slinky shows no signs of slowing down: Sales have risen twenty-five percent in the last several years. So, it's likely a whole new generation will remember that Slinky Jingle.

Copyright 2002 William S. Hammack Enterprises