As I was watching TV the other day, when I sat down to rest one of these hot summer days, I saw a re-enactment of a Slinky toy used in a commercial. I well remember how my first son was given such a toy on Christmas by an uncle who lived in New York City. How he marveled at the antics of this fast-responding coiled spring. He would go to the top of the stairs and watch this coiled spring walk its way to the bottom of the stairs.
It was in 1940 that engineer Richard James was experimenting with various kinds of delicate fast-responding springs. His goal was to develop a spring that would instantaneously counterbalance the wave motion that rocks a ship at sea. A set of such springs strategically placed around a sensitive nautical instrument would keep its needle gauges unaffected by pitching and yawing. In attempting to improve on existing anti-vibration devices, James stumbled on a fascinating toy.
One day in his home laboratory, James accidentally knocked an experimental spring off a shelf. The spring did not fall to the floor but literally crawled coil by coil to a lower shelf on to a stack of books down to the table top and finally came to rest upright on the floor. The experimenter found that the spring was particularly adept at ascending stairs.
It was James’ wife who realized that her husband’s invention should be a toy. So after two days of thumbing through a dictionary Betty settled on what she felt was the best adjective to describe the spring’s snake-like motion -- Slinky. So the couple in 1946 founded a company to market the Slinky.
In a reversal of roles, Slinky the toy has been put to practical uses. It was carried by communication soldiers in Vietnam, when it was tossed over a high tree branch as a makeshift radio antenna. It was also incorporated into a spring device used to pick pecans from trees. And Slinky has gone aloft in the space shuttle to test the effects of zero gravity on the physical laws that govern the mechanics of springs. In Space Slinky behaves like neither a spring nor a toy but as a continuously propagating wave.
Like my column about Tinker Toys some months ago, I found the information about one of my children’s fascinating toy a good topic. Perhaps my older son will find this toy -- although I suspect my younger son has stashed it away somewhere in his treasure trove. But I recall how we watched Slinky go through its antics in our home in Excelsior Spring, Mo.
Oh, so many years ago!
Harriette Leidich, a retired journalist, lives in North Bennington.