Read an Excerpt
Have you ever wondered who invented Mr. Potato Head, Lego, the bicycle, or even
remote control cars?
Here are the fascinating stories behind these toy inventions and many others. Learn why kites were popular in ancient China, how the Slinky was used during the Vietnam War, and the reason Raggedy Ann has a red heart that says
"I love you" on her chest. From dolls and
checkers to pinball and the modern video game, there's a wide selection for both boys and girls to pore over.
With humor and wit, this intriguing book serves up slices of cultural history that may just inspire young readers to think up their own toy inventions!
Don Wulffson is the author of many books for young readers, including
The Kid Who Invented the Popsicle and Other Surprising Inventions. A teacher of English and creative writing, Mr. Wulffson lives with his family in Northridge, California.
Laurie Keller is the author and illustrator of The Scrambled States of America and
Open Wide--Tooth School Inside. She lives in New York City.
Play-Doh began as a product for cleaning wallpaper. The seesaw was first used as a prop in the bloody
spectacle in the arenas of ancient Rome. Long ago there were kites so large that people could be flown on them. Behind every toy there is a story.
But some toys have far stranger stories than others. Only those toys that had the most surprising and unbelievable origins are found in this book.
Even though we know generally where and when a given toy was made, the chapters of this book are not in chronological order because there are all sorts of ways in which toys and their histories overlap. For example, tops have been around much longer than today's action figures-but action figures are a type of doll, and dolls were invented thousands of years before tops. So, really,
there is no way to put the history of toys into a simplified order.
In 1976, a time capsule was buried in Washington, D.C. Inside the capsule are dozens of toys from the last century. In 2076, exactly one hundred years later, it will be opened. People then will marvel at the wonderful jumble of toys and see how we lived, how we dressed,
and what we believed. Just as we are now, they will be amused and surprised by the toys they find, and from them, try to better understand the past.
It was a mistake. A goof-up. An invention that didn't work. A flop; that's what the Slinky was, at least in the beginning.
In 1945, an engineer by the name of Richard James was hard at work in a Philadelphia shipyard. The U.S. Navy had hired him to invent a stabilizing device for its ships. When a ship is plowing through the waves at sea, it pitches and plunges and rocks every which way. And its navigational instruments do, too. Richard's job was
to come up with something that would counterbalance the instruments so that they would be level at all times.
Springs. Richard believed that some sort of arrangement of springs would do the trick. He tried all different
types and sizes, and put them together in every conceivable way. For weeks he toiled, making dozens of different
devices. But none of them worked. In fact, he never did come up with the item the Navy had hired him to invent.
But one day Richard accidentally knocked a large experimental spring off a shelf. It should have just plopped to the floor. Instead, it walked down. Crawled,
really. Coil by coil, end over end, it descended onto a stack of books ... then down to a desktop ... down to
a chair ... and from there to the floor, where it gathered itself back together.
He tried it again and again. Each time, the same thing happened.
As soon as the workday was over, Richard hurried home. Fascinated with the strange spring, he showed
his wife, Betty, what it could do. Together, they tried it out in all sorts of ways and in all sorts of places. It was especially good at walking down stairs.
A toy. Richard didn't think of it that way. Betty did. She was the one who realized that what her husband had invented was a terrific toy. Betty was also the one who named it.
At first, all sorts of names came to mind, but none seemed quite right. For the next two days she thumbed through a dictionary, keeping a list of some of the best possibilities. Finally, she came upon what she believed was the perfect word to describe the toy: slinky.
Early the next year, Betty and Richard James borrowed $500 to have four hundred Slinkys made. They
went from store to store, trying to get the owners to stock them. A few did. But despite Slinky's wonderful ability to walk, it didn't move off the shelves. Not a single one was bought.
Richard and Betty were discouraged but not about to give up. Slinky was a supertoy, they were sure. And it would
sell--but people needed to be shown what it could do.
They went to the manager of a large department store named
Gimbel's. It took a lot of talking--even a little begging!--but finally they convinced
the manager to let them put on a demonstration. Fearing the worst, Richard slipped a dollar to a friend to make sure at least one Slinky would be sold. It turned out, though, that he had no need to worry. Shoppers stared in amazement as the steel coil gracefully walked
down a sloped board. Within ninety minutes, the entire stock of four hundred had been sold.
Before long, Richard and Betty were able to start their own company. Within a few years, they were millionaires. As for Slinky, 250 million have been sold to date; Slinky's sales are as strong today as ever. In the world of toys, Slinky still walks that walk, and shows no sign of ever slowing down.
- The early Slinkys were made of blue-black Swedish steel. In the first year of production, this material was replaced with less expensive American metal.
- At $2 apiece, a Slinky costs only twice what it did fifty years ago.
- There are about eighty feet of wire in a standard-sized Slinky.
- During the Vietnam War (early 1960s-1975) the Slinky reverted to its original role. First intended for the military, Slinky the toy ended up on the
battlefield. Carried by radiomen in the jungles of Vietnam, Slinkys were tossed over high tree branches as make-shift antennas.
- It takes approximately ten seconds to manufacture one Slinky.
- Slinkys make good scarecrows. After seeds have been planted, try hanging a Slinky on a nearby branch. With the slightest breeze, it'll dance
around, and birds will stay away.
- Slinky's most recent accomplishment was in outer space. Bunches have gone aboard space shuttles. The purpose: to test the effects of zero gravity on springs.
Copyright © 2000 by Don L. Wulffson