About the Holiday
There’s no better time than the beginning of the year to start letting your creative juices flow! Quick fixes or long-leisurely projects are all within your grasp! Want to repaint a room? Build a tree house in the spring? Learn some new recipes? Discover a new hobby? Start planning today how you will accomplish the inventive inspirations that swirl through your imagination.
The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring: The Accidental Invention of the Toy That Swept the Nation
By Gilbert Ford
In 1943, during World War II, the United States Navy asked one of their engineers, Richard James, to “invent a device that would keep fragile ship equipment from vibrating in choppy seas.” Richard tried all kinds of springs, but none worked just right. “One day a torsion spring fell from a shelf onto his desk, and “its coils took a walk…” This sparked Richard’s imagination. While Richard knew the spring wasn’t right for his Navy work, he recognized that it might be perfect for something else. But what?
He took the spring home from work that day, showed it to his wife Betty, and gave it to his young son Tom. Tom took it to the top of the stairs and let it go. “The family watched in astonishment as it…walked all the way down!” They lost no time in realizing that this spring made a marvelous toy. But what to call it? “Betty thumbed through a dictionary for two days, underlining words. None really caught her fancy, until she came to ‘slinky,’ which means “‘graceful’ and ‘curvy in movement.’” It also “sounded like the swish and clink of the spring’s coils in motion.”
Richard and Betty thought they had a unique hit on their hands, so Richard went to the bank and borrowed five-hundred dollars to make 400 Slinkys. But while Richard and Betty loved their Slinky, toy store managers did not. Finally, Richard went to Gimbels, the big department store. The manager there didn’t see the merits of the Slinky either, but when Richard begged to be allowed to demonstrate it just once, he relented.
It was now November 1945 and the Christmas shoppers were out looking for stocking stuffers. Richard set up a ramp in the middle of the toy department and placed the Slinky at the top. He looked around for Betty, but she was nowhere to be seen. In fact, Betty was still at home worried that no one would like their toy. She was so concerned that she convinced a friend to “pose as an excited shopper” and buy one with the dollar Betty gave her. At Gimbels, however, time—and shoppers—were passing, so Richard let go of the Slinky. The astonished faces of the children and adults crowded around the ramp said it all. By the time Betty and her friend reached Gimbels, all 400 Slinkys had been sold—in only 90 minutes!
With the end of the war that same year, troops returned home and a baby boom soon followed. “Demand for the Slinky skyrocketed.” Production needed to speed up, so Richard devised a “machine that could coil eighty feet of steel wire into a Slinky in ten seconds.” The Slinky business became a family business with Betty filling orders and doing the accounting while Richard made and delivered Slinkys. Pretty soon they needed a factory to satisfy demand. That demand still exists today as kids all over the world love the Slinky.
An extended Author’s Note picks up the story of the Slinky where the text leaves off, revealing other creative ways the Slinky has been used and the fact that when Richard went to Bolivia in 1960 to do missionary work, Betty took over the business, relocated the factory to Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, and gave the toy a rebirth in popularity. More than 250 million Slinkys have been produced, and in 2001 Betty was inducted into the Toy Industry Hall of Fame.
Gilbert Ford’s Slinky-ography of the man and woman behind one of the world’s most beloved toys is a skip, jump, and bounce through the ingenious brainstorm that transposed a simple spring into a phenomenon. The down-to-earth details of how this invention came to be harken back to a simpler time but also reaffirm that even today there are dreamers sitting in homes across the world imagining the next big thing. Ford’s story is well paced, leading readers through the production process to experience cheerful surprise when the Slinkys sell out at Gimbels. Kids will appreciate the easy-going language that suits its subject perfectly and the emphasis on the teamwork of both Richard and Betty James that made the Slinky possible.
Ford’s illustrations are ingenious in themselves. Careful observation reveals that each page is not merely a drawing, but a 3D experience. As the front matter explains, the illustrations were drawn and colored then printed, assembled into dioramas that incorporate found objects and other popular toys of the period, such as dominoes, jacks, and pick-up sticks, and finally photographed. The effect drops readers into the middle of a 1940s home and department store, giving them a personal stake in the drama.
The Marvelous Thing That Came from a Spring is a fun book for would-be-inventors and kids interested in the history of objects they use and play with.
Ages 4 – 8
Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster, 2016 | ISBN 978-1481450652
Discover a portfolio of work by Gilbert Ford for books, book jackets, advertising, and more on his website!
International Creativity Month Activity
National Archives Coloring Book of Patents
The people at the National Archives of the United States in Washington DC chose some of their favorite patents from the past to share with you as a coloring book. As you have fun coloring these pages of ideas, let yours fly too!
Click here to get your printable National Archives Coloring Book of Patents
Picture Book Review