This episode is hosted by Chris and covers the history of the invention of the Slinky by Richard T. James, an icon in children's toys.
Links and Resources Mentioned:
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Gavin: 00:00 This is Curious Creations with Chris. We'll be covering a variety of curious creations that came to be. In this episode, we'll be covering the Slinky. You can find out more at whatorigin.com, and you can follow the conversation at facebook.com/whatorigin.
Chris: 00:19 Consider for a moment, if you will, a tightly wound coil of coated steel, commonly known to the mechanical engineer as a tension spring. We all clearly know that in architectural philosophy, form is supposed to follow function. An object or any piece of technology is supposed to have an ideal form that maximizes its effectiveness. A properly designed metal ruler will allow for accurate measurement in a multitude of all-weather indoor or outdoor applications. But when a ruler is placed in the hand of an imaginative child, it can become a blunt, shortsword destined to rid the land or the living room of injustice. In the hand of a mechanically inclined child, it can become an acoustical instrument of percussion when the ruler is placed over the edge of the table and plucked like a guitar string. Given proper motivation and a somewhat deliberate ignorance of the rules, a tool can assume dozens of new and novel purposes.
Chris: 01:21 So let's travel now, to 1943. Oklahoma was on Broadway and FDR was in the White House. Pearl Harbor was fresh on the minds of many Americans, and World War II raged on both the Pacific and European fronts. In the city of Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, the Senators beat the Athletics seven to five in April, and the Half Million fire swept through the big garage of Adam's Express, burning buildings and cars and causing a hundred cattle to escape the stockyards and to stampede in the street, hampering firefighting efforts. A simpler time, to be sure.
Chris: 01:57 In the offices of the Cramp shipyards, a naval engineer was devising a stabilizer for a marine torsion meter. When a large boat or battleship travels across the ocean, the accumulated forces of the waves and weather caused the boat to rock back and forth. In small craft, these forces have a negligible effect on the life of the engine and powertrain systems. But when a massive 27,000-ton craft, like the American battle cruiser, Alaska, starts to shift with the waves, even the toughest engines and propeller shafts will take notice.
Chris: 02:34 The purpose of a torsion meter is to calculate the inertial force that a ship is exerting on its drivetrain, and to allow the crew to manage performance accordingly. An engine that is facing unexpected resistance to motion will suffer an equally unexpected amount of wear and tear, causing the internal gaskets and pistons to fail much more quickly than the ship's designers had intended. Deep in the basement of the Cramp shipyards of Pennsylvania, Richard James was hard at work testing various springs that were intended to stabilize naval torsion meters. Perhaps he carelessly reached across his desk for a much-needed draft of office coffee and his arm brushed against one of these tension springs causing it to roll and slide off the end of the table. To his surprise, the motion of the spring caused it to flex and continue walking end over end across the floor. Richard rushed home and told his wife about what happened and said, "I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk."
Chris: 03:39 Fortunately, there was negligible military value in a flexible oscillating toy spring and Richard was allowed to work on his spring in peace. The historical records become unclear at this point on whether Richard or his wife, Betty James, had the initial idea to market the spring coil as a children's toy. What is clear is that Richard continued to refine the steel and circumference of the coils until their prototype achieved maximum flexibility and slinkiness. Betty paged through a dictionary looking for the name that properly described their toy. Finally, settling on the Swedish word "slinky", a word meaning graceful in movement. History has not recorded whether that dictionary also included any of the potentially sultry connotations that would follow that word over the next few decades. Richard borrowed $500 and hired a local piston ring manufacturing firm to whip up 400 pieces of the original Slinky. Christmas approached, a perfect time for selling novel toys in bulk.
Chris: 04:43 Gimbels Department Store, a mainstay of the Market Street East retail corridor in Philadelphia, allowed the Jameses to set up a small display advertising their new toy. Days went by, and not one Slinky walked off the store shelf. Richard checked their stock and grimly cataloged the lack of sales. Clearly, the shopping public were unable to see what the Slinky was capable of doing. Richard decided to go down to the store and display the toy in front of the store's customers. His wife, Betty, agreed to meet up with them later that night, but when she arrived, she saw a line of customers purchasing every last Slinky. All 400 Slinkies were sold in about 90 minutes after Richard's demo, and an American icon of entrepreneurial ingenuity was founded, you know, for kids.
Chris: 05:31 The aspect of this story that I like to focus on are the Jameses' ability to look at this simple piece of military hardware and see it as something totally different than what it was originally designed to be. It's that same urge that gets mechanics and musicians to improvise when they're reassembling a car or assembling jazz. But what makes this story timeless for me is the grit and determination that both Betty and Richard showed in bringing the Slinky to market and getting the wartime public to joyfully drop a dollar on this piece of mechanical novelty. My name is Chris, and you've been listening to the What Origin podcast, from muse to manifestation: exploring why and how people create things.