Grasping at Straws: The Slinky

Welcome to Grasping at Straws, the weekly blog where the unheralded, the underappreciated, and the long forgotten get their time to shine! Each week, I will “make the case” for an unpopular opinion regarding any topic or category of culture and life. Suggestions for future topics will be taken and considered at any of Sour Power’s social media channels, but please, keep it classy.

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Image result for slinky

Today at 5:58 PM ET, the Northern Hemisphere will welcome the Spring Equinox and officially enter the season in which it is named after. Following the harsh weather of winter, there can easily be a case made for spring as the most highly anticipated and overall best liked season among the four. That certainly sounds like something I would do in this column, right? Right, but I’m going to head in a different direction with this one.

To celebrate the beginning of spring, I plan on diving into the never-ending joys and unheralded cultural significance of the greatest of all springs: the Slinky. Whether your like yours in vintage shiny steel, plastic rainbow, or shimmering 14K gold (oh they’re out there alright, and they’re even sold by Target), the Slinky is among the most classic of all children’s toys, with a storied history that exceeds 70 years at this point. That being said, in order to truly appreciate the Slinky, we must journey back to its humble roots and track its progression from a product of an accident to its current status as an unquestioned icon.

Richard James, a naval mechanical engineer stationed at the William Cramp & Sons shipyards in Philadelphia, had no plans to break into the toy business. He desired to be a toy inventor as much as Jon Snow desired to be the Lord Commander of the Night’s Watch as Samwell Tarly nominated Jon against his wishes (final season of Game of Thrones starts April 14!!!). But sometimes in life, fate intervenes. This is what occurred one day in in 1943 when Richard James accidentally knocked a spring from a shelf and watched as the spring “stepped” in a series of arcs to a stack of books, to a tabletop, and to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright.

I imagine it must’ve been like witnessing Thomas Edison’s first light bulb illuminate, or being present for Beethoven playing the opening notes of his legendary Fifth Symphony for the very first time. I truly don’t believe I’m being hyperbolic, either. Try to picture seeing an infant experience the wizardry of a Slinky for the very first time (or remember your own first encounter, if you are able to). The mix of wonder and disbelief on his/her face has to be comparable to what the people in Edison or Beethoven’s company displayed. Different level of global impact, sure, but the same amount of I’m-witnessing-something-incredible.

Anyway, James ran with this mini-miracle he stumbled upon and, along with his wife Betty, formed James Industries. The couple started with 400 Slinky units priced at $1 each. At first, the Jameses had difficulty selling Slinky to toy stores. Richard knew, however, that if others were able to experience what he saw that fateful day when he knocked over the spring, the Slinky would take off. Alas, in November 1945, they were granted permission to set up an inclined plane in the toy section of Gimbels department store in Philadelphia to demonstrate the toy. Slinky was a hit, and the first 400 units were sold within ninety minutes. The next year, the Slinky was introduced at the American Toy Fair.

The rest is history.

The Slinky has since developed into one of the most easily recognizable and popular toys ever. It was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000. High school teachers and college professors have used the Slinky in the classroom to simulate the properties of waves. United States troops in the Vietnam War used them as mobile radio antennas. Even NASA has used them in zero-gravity physics experiments in the Space Shuttle.

All of this from an accident. A lucky swipe of the hand that knocked a spring off of a shelf and launched Richard James, Betty James, and the Slinky into eternity. This begs the question, how does it stack up against some of the other notorious examples of products being invented by mistake? The Slinky was certainly not the only one of note; in fact, the list of accidental strokes of genius may surprise you. Let’s break them down:

The Potato Chip

All the way back in 1853, a New York chef named George Crum invented potato chips solely out of spite. Yes, you read correctly. After a patron of his restaurant kept sending back his French fried potatoes for being too soggy, Crum decided to slice them extra thin, fry them to a crisp, and drown them in salt. To Crum’s surprise, the customer enjoyed his salty chip of disdain. Soon enough, these “Saratoga Chips” became a staple on his Crum’s menu and were later sold by the bag until they evolved into what potato chips are today.

A strong contender right out of the gate due to it having 90 years on the Slinky and being just as ubiquitous, I’m honestly going to have to give the potato chip a slight edge over the Slinky.

Post-It Notes

Imagine accomplishing the exact opposite of what you’re attempting to do, yet being way better off for failing in this manner.

This is the situation Spencer Silver found himself in when he was trying to create a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry as a chemist working for 3M in 1968. Instead, he stumbled across a “low-tack” adhesive that he found was just strong enough to hold paper to a surface but weak enough that it wouldn’t tear upon removal. Unfortunately for Silver, it was very difficult to figure out a marketable application for his invention. After many unsuccessful attempts, it was actually one of Silver’s colleagues, Art Fry, who realized that it would be perfect as a no-slip bookmark and the Post-It note was created, although it wasn’t launched nationwide until the 1980’s.

Even though your desk is probably littered with Post-It Notes at this very moment, I can’t see one person out there who would prefer a Post-it Note to a Slinky. Challenger defeated.


With this being such a monumental brand, you may or may not know this story already, but it certainly still qualifies.

Civil War veteran and pharmacist John Pemberton was addicted to morphine for pain and wanted to find an alternative for the dangerous opiate. He went on to create a syrup made of wine and coca extract he called “Pemberton’s French Wine Coca,” which was touted as a cure for headaches and nervous disorders. However, Atlanta banned the sale of alcohol in 1885, so Pemberton created a purely coca-based version of the syrup to be mixed with carbonated water and consumed as a soda. As enticing as an alcohol-infused Coke may sound, I think it’s safe to say that Pemberton’s forced switch-up turned out to be the right move.

Unfortunately, there’s no argument I can conjure up for the Slinky against Coke without sounding like a fool. The Slinky falls to 1-2.


In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson decided he wanted to try saving some money by making his own lemonade at home. Using a combination of powder and water he got pretty close but then absentmindedly left the concoction out on the porch all night. Temperatures ended up dropping severely, and when he came out in the morning he found his mixture frozen with the stirring stick still in it. 18 years later Epperson patented the product and the Popsicle was born.

This may be slightly controversial but I’m giving the nod to the Slinky. Someone would’ve figured out that freezing sugar water would result in a tasty treat soon enough if young Frank Epperson didn’t accidentally do it that day in 1905. Meanwhile, how likely is it that anyone would’ve realized what a specially-configured spring was capable of if not for Richard James’ life-altering clumsiness? Think on that, and I’m confident you’ll agree with me. The Slinky ties it up at 2-2.

Artificial Sweetener

Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives at Johns Hopkins University, noticed his wife’s biscuits were conspicuously sweeter than usual one evening in 1879. He eventually connected this with the compound benzoic sulfimide on which he had been working that day. Fahlberg realized he might have something special on his hands (which he literally did, that’s what made the biscuits so sweet), so by 1884 he applied for patents in several countries for the artificial sweetener he named saccharin. Fast forward to present day and Fahlberg’s accidental discovery is sitting in pink Sweet N’ Low packets in every home and restaurant.

I’m siding with the Slinky solely because of Fahlberg’s blatant neglect of hygiene. After working with coal tar all day, you come home and eat the biscuits your wife worked hard to make without washing your hands??? That type of behavior would never fly when I was growing up. If I so much as stepped outside the house that day, I was required to undergo a full-body cleanse before sitting down at the dinner table. Fahlberg got lucky, which I suppose is the spirit of all these inventions, but it allows for the Slinky to come out on top 3-2.


There you have it. The Slinky proves its superiority over other accidental inventions in an absolutely objective and not-at-all skewed determination of its merits and impressiveness. An unrelenting beacon of fun, The Slinky will stand the test of time no matter how far technology advances, no matter how short our attention spans get. When you’re a kid, there is simply nothing like seeing that wondrous spring go end-over-end without you laying a finger on it. It’s the simplest of all man-made joys.

Or maybe, I’m just grasping at straws.