Good Life

Bob Swaim hopes to propel Slinky to status as state’s official toy

Bob Swaim, left, and Jon Wieck race Slinky toys down a board. Bob Swaim held a Slinky promotional event at on March 18 to give the public information about the toy and promote its use.
Bob Swaim, left, and Jon Wieck race Slinky toys down a board. Bob Swaim held a Slinky promotional event at on March 18 to give the public information about the toy and promote its use. CDT photo

Everyone loves a Slinky — but few have started a campaign to make it the official state toy of Pennsylvania.

Retired math teacher Bob Swaim was nearing the end of his two-hour tenure in Penn State’s HUB-Robeson Center. At his booth he offered college students the opportunity to return to a simpler time, back before text books or term papers to an age when the simple pleasure of watching a metallic spring bounce down a staircase could provide hours of amusement.

Alas, time, much like a Slinky, moves only forward — which may be why Swaim is focused on memorializing the past.

By the conclusion of his presentation, Swaim had collected 30 names in favor of making the Slinky the state toy of Pennsylvania, one part of a three-pronged appreciation campaign that also involves a sculpture and a documentary. For Swaim, his efforts aren’t just about honoring the Slinky, but paying homage a popular object steeped in Pennsylvania history.

“We should all be about promoting Pennsylvania, whether it’s Slinky or whatever,” Swaim said.

A self-described collector and presenter of unique human-powered toys, Swaim and his booth were providing sanctuary for a few other toy refugees from yesteryear, including juggling pins and a yellow funnel with a ball that could travel from one end and out the other — but his true interest remains with a coiled diversion that looks like a loose spring.

That’s exactly what mechanical engineer Richard James was studying shortly after graduating from Penn State in 1939. James was looking into spring technology for the Navy when a loose coil bounced off a shelf.

The spark of inspiration that followed left the Navy high and dry but launched a product that sold 400 units in 90 minutes during an initial display at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia.

This was in 1945, the same year that Bob Swaim was born. He appreciated the Slinky at a young age, even if he could never get the staircase in his childhood home to cooperate.

“When I was young, I failed at Slinkys because I had the wrong size,” Swaim said.

During his presentation at HUB, Swaim demonstrated how different-sized Slinky toys descended a mock staircase at varying speeds. He believes that the element of physics involved makes the Slinky relevant well beyond a person’s formative years.

“This type of system, I think, encourages ideas,” Swaim said.

One of the driving forces behind his informational campaign is a desire to see people split their time more evenly between computer screens and activities that allow them to interface with one another.

“How about a blend — 30 percent, 70 percent,” Swaim said.

His intellectual curiosity regarding the Slinky intensified after he happened upon a televised factory tour with Betty James, former wife of Richard James and the then-acting CEO of James Industries.

Betty James met her husband while she was a student at Penn State. Richard James had refined the design of his creation, but it was his wife Betty who christened the soon-to-be-iconic children’s toy.

Business at James Industries was already in dire straits when Richard James left his company to join a religious order in Bolivia. Betty James assumed full control, moving operations from Philadelphia to Hollidaysburg and restoring the enterprise to good health.

It’s history that Swaim is still trying to share. He said he recently spoke with the Penn State Sculpture Commission about placing an interactive Slinky sculpture on campus.

Swaim also contacted Pennsylvania State Rep. Judy Ward about the possibility of making the Slinky the official state toy. He said that it’s all in the name of raising Pennsylvania’s profile.

“You need people out there marketing your product,” Swaim said.

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