A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Did the inventor of the Slinky join a cult in Bolivia?

July 6, 2001

Dear Cecil:

In a new book, Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the World, I read that the inventor of the Slinky, Richard James, joined a cult in Bolivia to which he donated much of his profits. What cult? Do proceeds from sales of Slinkys still go to the cult?

Cecil replies:

What's your problem with cults, Ken? Why, just this spring while writing a check I said to myself, this money is going to fund religious zealots bent on subverting everything I hold dear. But I mailed in my income tax anyway.

In any case, I don't know that we want to call Richard James's coreligionists a cult. Details about the group are scanty, and it's possible they were just an exceptionally enthusiastic bunch of Episcopalians. Besides, it's been more than 40 years since any Slinky money found its way into the organization's coffers. During the 1950s, however, quite a bit did. Here's as much of the story as I could piece together, based on conversations with Richard's ex-wife, Betty, a remarkable woman who saved the Slinky company after her husband bailed.

It all started in 1943, when Richard, an engineer at a navy shipyard in Philadelphia, noticed a torsion spring fall off a table and wiggle when it hit the floor. In the metallurgical equivalent of Newton's apple, Richard recognized a toy waiting to be born. Having succeeded in finding steel with the right combination of lightness and springiness — no small feat in wartime — he was ready to take his product to market by late 1945. Realizing that the key to selling the Slinky was showing it in action, he fabricated a display in which the toy walked down steps and persuaded the Philadelphia branch of Gimbel's department store to let him give demonstrations. Shoppers went nuts, and in 90 minutes Richard's entire stock of 400 Slinkys had sold out. The thing was a hit at a toy fair the following spring and soon had become a national phenomenon.

By the 1950s Richard was pretty flush. He and Betty lived with their growing family on a 12-acre estate near the suburb of Bryn Mawr on Philadelphia's affluent Main Line. But he wasn't content and at some point got religion. Previous accounts have been vague on how this came about, and Betty herself doesn't have a lot of specifics. She doesn't know what religious organization Richard got hooked up with, only that it was an evangelical Christian sect that she termed a cult. Richard began consorting with what Betty considered dubious characters, made sizable financial contributions, and testified at revival meetings. She attended one and found it mortifying.

I asked Betty what had gotten into her husband. She said Slinky sales were slumping in the mid-50s and that Richard, a charismatic man who had gotten used to being a big shot, liked the attention he got while confessing his sins.

Wondering what kind of sins we were talking about, I asked: "Did Richard have, ah, personal issues that led to his religious conversion?" Yes, Betty said. He'd been a philanderer. She'd found out about it, they'd had discussions of the sort that usually ensue, but she'd stayed with him for the sake of their six children.

Finally, in February 1960, Richard announced to Betty and their two eldest children that he was moving to Bolivia to work for his religious group. They could either sell the business or run it themselves; he was cutting all ties. By July he was gone. What exactly he did in Bolivia, Betty doesn't know, although there's no reason to think it was anything along the lines of Jim Jones in Guyana — more like a mission, from the sound of it. At one point she heard he was printing religious tracts.

To provide for her family, Betty decided to keep the Slinky business going, but it was on the verge of bankruptcy. Richard had diverted the company's resources to his religious interests and left millions of dollars in unpaid bills. Betty begged her creditors to be patient, and miraculously they all agreed. She wangled a TV advertising deal, moved the Slinky plant to her hometown of Hollidaysburg in central Pennsylvania, and slowly put the company back on its feet.

Every so often she got accusatory letters from Richard urging her to repent. At one point he asked that she leave the children and join him in Bolivia. She never replied. In 1974 she heard that he had died of a heart attack, and that was that.

Betty ran James Industries, as the Slinky company was officially known, for nearly four decades. In 1998, having produced close to 300 million Slinkys since the founding of the company, she sold out for a boatload of money to a Michigan company that promised to keep the Slinky plant and its 120-some jobs in Hollidaysburg. Your Slinky buck may have supported some dubious ventures prior to 1960, but it's been well spent since.

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