When Richard T. James began his work in 1943, he had little reason to believe he was about to impact children’s lives worldwide.
James, a Naval engineer, worked on tension springs to stabilize shipboard equipment even in heavy seas. WWII was raging in two oceans, so the sensitive equipment is crucial to survival.
James’ approach was to use the springs like a shock absorber. If radios or radar equipment was suspended with springs, they could withstand sudden shocks or bumps. One type of spring was unusual. It had a wide diameter and thin gauge wire that made it near useless for most spring applications.
And then one evening, he knocked one over. Low and behold, the spring seemed to walk on its own as it tumbled over itself.
He knew he’d discovered something marvelous but wasn’t sure exactly what it was. He rushed home to his wife and showed her, and she also got excited.
She knew Richard had invented a new children’s toy, and it was going to be huge.
After a quick consultation with the dictionary to find an appropriate word, the two named the new invention “Slinky.” Slinky, as it turns out, is a Swedish word meaning sleek or sinuous.
Richard soon bought a coil-winding machine to mass-produce Slinky’s and took them to Gimbels just in time for the holiday season. The couple made 400 of the toys in that first run and sold them out in 90 minutes.
Since then, more than 300 million Slinky’s have been sold worldwide. To this day, Slinky still sells about a quarter-million units annually.
It didn’t take a ground-breaking new invention to make Richard and Betty James rich. All they had was a novel approach to an existing product and the confidence to run with the idea.
It’s easy to come up with a good idea; it’s something else to follow through on it to success. Next time you recognize an opportunity, seize it by the horns and turn it into your own Slinky story.