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Geek Trivia: Woman of industry

What world-famous toy did Richard James invent and Betty James save from bankruptcy and extinction?

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Betty James' professional life is one of those great triumph-over-tragedy success stories. Betty James was president of James Industries (the company her husband Richard James founded) from 1960 to 1998, when she sold it to a larger organization on the promise that the buyer would keep the operation she'd established in Hollidaysburg, PA, intact.

Over the course of nearly four decades, Betty James rescued the business that her husband had nearly bankrupted through his devotion to an obscure religious order—one he eventually joined in Bolivia after abandoning Betty and their six children.

Richard James, a former naval engineer, invented one of the most successful toys in history—a staggeringly simple device that remains in production and highly popular almost 60 years after its debut.

Indeed, the aforementioned Hollidaysburg plant still manufactures these remarkable diversionary devices using the original machines Richard James designed. Betty James insisted on maintaining the original manufacturing technique, a fact that no doubt contributes both to the toy's success, as well as its continued survival as a pop culture icon.


What world-famous toy did naval engineer Richard James invent, which his persevering wife, Betty James, later saved from bankruptcy-induced extinction?

Richard James invented the timeless and simplistic Slinky, the spring-like toy that spawned a whole range of products and became a pop culture icon. Inspired by a metal torsion spring that he saw fall off a table, Richard James spent two years perfecting the length (80 feet) and materials (originally blue-black Swedish steel) of the toy. It was Betty James who chose the name "Slinky" after browsing the dictionary.

The original Slinky debuted at Gimbel's Department Store in Philadelphia around Christmas 1945, and the entire original display of 400 toys sold in 90 minutes. Thus, a toy wonder was born. From this phenomenon, the couple built a company to mass-produce the Slinky.

When Richard James abandoned his family and business to join a Bolivian religious order, Betty James assumed control of James Industries and rebuilt its bottom line, which Richard's contributions to the order had eroded. Betty James guided the company steadily for nearly 40 years and sold a thriving Slinky empire to Poof Toys in 1998.

During her tenure, Betty James converted the once blue-black Slinky to its now familiar gray metal standard and added a safety crimp to each end of the steel coil. Otherwise, the Slinky holds true to her husband's original designs, and the same machines that first manufactured the toy still produce it today.

For her perseverance, the Toy Industry Hall of Fame inducted Betty James—but not Richard—in 2001.

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The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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