Accidental Toy Inventions
Accidents happen—and not all have a bad outcome. Sometimes they launch loads of fun, like these classic toys that delight us as kids.
Advertisement for Slinky, "Insist on Slinky Toys," 1957 / THF109573
Slinky, 1970-1980 / THF309090
In 1942, marine engineer Richard James of Philadelphia was working on a sensitive marine meter designed to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. His quest? To develop an inner spring that would assure that the device—even if rocked at sea—would give an accurate reading. As James worked, he accidentally knocked one of the rejected prototypes off his desk. The spring hit the ground—then kept spiraling, coil by coil, over the office floor!
This unexpected response intrigued James, who immediately realized that it would make a great toy. For several years he tested various metals, thicknesses, and proportions to come up with the perfect design. His wife, Betty, came up with the perfect name—Slinky. Then James began to sell his Slinkys in local stores. But people weren’t buying.
Clearly customers needed to be shown what a Slinky could do. Richard and Betty James, determined to find success, convinced the Gimbels department store to let them do an in-store demonstration. James had arranged with a local machine ship to manufacture 400 Slinkys—98 coils of high-grade, blue-black Swedish steel piled 2 ½ inches high. Armed with a small set of stairs, the Jameses set out for Gimbels with their Slinkys. As the department store’s curious customers looked on, the Slinky gracefully moved down the stairs. Within minutes, the entire stock of 400 had sold.
Slinkys look simple—but they are actually quite intricate. The original dark steel was later replaced with a silver-colored steel. And, while Slinkys now come in colored plastic, the classic Slinky has remained virtually unchanged.
There’s something rather lifelike about a Slinky, whether walking down some stairs or a sloped board, or shuffling back and forth between one’s hands. And the sound of a Slinky in motion—quite melodious. I have fond childhood memories of a Slinky gliding coil over coil down our stairs—each move punctuated by that distinctive Slinky “snap”—as my siblings and I looked on mesmerized by its flowing passage. How did it know how to do that?
Silly Putty, circa 1962 / THF135811
During World War II, the Japanese invasion of the Far East cut off the United States’ rubber supply—rubber badly needed for the mass production of tires and boots. The War Production Board asked General Electric to develop an inexpensive rubber substitute. Chemical engineer James Wright set to work at the company’s New Haven, Connecticut, lab, experimenting with boric acid and silicone oil. Unexpectedly, the two substances gelled. The result was a gooey compound that bounced when tossed on the floor—even higher than rubber did. It stretched farther and retained its properties over a wide temperature range. And oddly enough, it had the ability to lift text or images off the pages of newspapers and comic books. Quite amazing stuff. But the United States War Production Board rejected it as a rubber substitute. And—despite investigation into other possibilities—one seemingly without a practical use.
Silly Putty became a curiosity that made the rounds of New Haven cocktail parties, where it found itself an amusing “guest.” Ruth Fallgatter, who owned a toy store, and Peter Hodgson, her advertising consultant, took notice. Soon, the putty appeared in the store’s holiday catalog as a novelty gift for adults called Bouncing Putty. There was no image, only a description of the product. You guessed it. Bouncing Putty was a huge hit among Fallgatter’s customers.
Fallgatter lost interest in continuing to market the product, but Hodgson persevered. He purchased a large batch of the putty from General Electric, hired Yale students to separate it into one-ounce portions, then packaged it in multicolored plastic eggs. Since “bouncing” didn’t cover everything this remarkable putty could do, Hodgson called it Silly Putty.
Silly Putty’s reception at the 1950 New York Toy Fair didn’t go too well. Hodgson managed to get only a few accounts. One of these was Doubleday bookshops—and that proved to be enough. Silly Putty soon got its “big break” when a staff writer for The New Yorker discovered it when he stopped in the chain’s Manhattan store, then mentioned Silly Putty in the magazine’s popular “Talk of the Town” column. A few days later, Hodgson had orders for over 250,000 items. Since then, the contents of hundreds of millions of Silly Putty eggs have been bounced and stretched by kids and adults alike.
Oh—that thing about Silly Putty not having a practical purpose? Apparently, it does for some. People have used it to clean typewriter keys or level the legs of wobbly tables. Silly Putty even orbited the moon in 1968 with the Apollo 8 astronauts, helping to keep their tools fastened down in the weightless environment.
Like other kids, I would grab Silly Putty and the Sunday comics, then lift an image from the page. At first, I pulled carefully to distort the image in interesting ways. By the end of pulling, the image was so distorted that it was no longer recognizable—then every trace magically disappeared as I kneaded the putty. (I hear this no longer works, since the printing process for color comics has changed.) But perhaps my favorite Silly Putty-related activity was bouncing it—Silly Putty had an energetic, almost otherworldly bounce. And I can’t recall childhood memories of Silly Putty without thinking of the time my sister took it to bed with her. For years afterwards, a perfectly oval Silly Putty stain graced the sheets.
Colorforms Set, Popeye the Weatherman, 1959 / THF135813, THF135805
You’ve heard of starving artist stories. Well, this is one.
In 1951, Harry and Patricia Kislevitz were experimenting with various materials and mediums—preferably of the least expensive sort. A friend who owned a handbag business gave them a large roll of flexible vinyl that he didn’t want. The Kislevitzes discovered that it stuck really well to the semi-gloss paint on their bathroom walls—then proceeded to cut out basic shapes and arrange them artistically. When guests visited, they found vinyl and scissors lying on the bathroom counter, beckoning them to join in. A good time was had by all as everyone added to or rearranged the giant collage!
The Kislevitzes decided to market their idea. They created vinyl pieces in standard geometric shapes and primary colors. Then they packaged them with a sheet of black laminated paperboard. Colorforms caught on! And they soon came in new sets—pieced, die-cut, and screened to look like characters or everyday objects.
A kid could design dinosaurs, dress ballet dancers, or send vinyl superheroes on adventures. Scenes from favorite movies or TV shows like Mary Poppins or Sesame Street were within two-dimensional reach. The possibilities were rich—and less messy, done without scissors, paste, or paint.
My favorite Colorforms in young childhood? A set where you dressed a character for the weather—similar to the Popeye version above.
Set of Play-Doh, circa 1979 / THF190091
When a New Jersey nursery schoolteacher happened to mention that the modeling clay used by her students was too firm for their small fingers, her brother-in-law took note. Joe McVicker, who was working for his father’s Cincinnati soap and cleaning products company, thought he might have an answer. In the mid-1950s, McVicker formulated a putty-like non-toxic substance and sold it as a wallpaper cleaner. Not only could it be easily shaped, but this compound also stayed soft indefinitely if stored in a tightly sealed container.
McVicker double-checked to assure that it was safe, then mailed some off to his sister-in-law’s school. Kids loved the putty—and so did the teachers. He knew he was on to something.
McVicker contacted the Cincinnati Board of Education, who bought the product for all the kindergartens and elementary schools in the district. Next, the putty made its debut at an educational convention, where it was noticed by the wife of a buyer for the Woodward & Lothrop department store in Washington, DC. After a successful in-store demo there, major retailers like Macy’s and Marshall Field placed their own orders.
By 1956, this wallpaper-cleaner-turned-kid’s-toy became known as Play-Doh. And the company? The family business transformed from Kutol Chemicals—not very kid-friendly—to Rainbow Crafts.
Play-Doh was originally offered only in white. By its second year on the market, it came in an even softer consistency and three colors: red, yellow, and blue—developed by company chemist Dr. Tien Liu. In the early 1980s, pink, purple, green, and orange made playtime with Play-Doh even more colorful. Day-glo and glitter versions would later follow.
What’s Play-Doh modeling compound made of? Apparently, that formula is a closely guarded secret.
I grew up in the red-yellow-blue era. I loved the way mixing these not-quite-primary colors could create other beautiful Play-Doh hues. The only downside? Once mixed and kneaded, you couldn’t return them back into their primary basics.
Super Soaker 50 Water Gun, 1991-1992 / THF185767
Engineers, businesspeople, artists—and NASA scientists. Accidental toy inventions have landed in toy boxes through these “out of the box” thinkers.
NASA rocket scientist? Yes, that would be Lonnie Johnson and his Super Soaker water gun.
Johnson was passionate about inventing not only at his day job as an engineer working with hundreds of colleagues, but also working on his own inventions in his spare time. In 1982, Johnson was in his home workshop developing an environmentally friendly cooling system. To test his idea of using circulating water and air pressure instead of the chemical Freon, Johnson connected a high-pressure nozzle to his bathroom faucet, aimed the nozzle, turned it on, and then blasted a powerful stream of water into the bathtub. He quickly recognized its potential as a toy—a pressurized water gun that didn’t require batteries and was safe enough for kids to play with!
Johnson quickly produced a prototype using Plexiglas, PVC pipe, a two-liter soda bottle, and other materials. Over the next few years, he continued to make improvements. In 1989, Johnson licensed his design for the Super Soaker to Larami. The company launched the toy in 1990.
Kids loved it! Within two years, the Super Soaker generated over $200 million in sales, becoming the top-selling toy in the United States. Improved versions of the Super Soaker debuted have debuted since then—delighting millions of kids and adults, too.
Johnson didn’t just take his royalty money and retire. It was a means to achieving his real goal—establishing his own research company, Johnson Research & Development Co., where Johnson develops innovative technology.
You can see more artifacts related to Slinky, Colorforms, Play-Doh, and Super Soaker, as well as hundreds of other toys, in our Digital Collections.
Jeanine Head Miller is Curator of Domestic Life at The Henry Ford.
engineering, making, inventors, popular culture, by Jeanine Head Miller, toys and games