Innovative Spirit

The Patents Behind Toy Story’s Beloved Characters

The Pixar series is full of classic toys, from the Slinky Dog to the Speak & Spell, that sprung from the minds of clever inventors

Slinky Dog and its cousin, Slinky Train, were allegedly inspired by inventor Helen Malsed's 6-year-old son, who wanted to see what would happen if his Christmas Slinky had wheels attached. (Aykut67/iStock)
smithsonian.com

With Toy Story 4 in theaters later this month, we’ve been thinking about toys. They’re as old as civilization. Neolithic kids are presumed to have played with sticks and clay balls. Ancient Egyptian children had a game resembling jacks. Children of China’s Zhou Dynasty flew kites. Medieval European kids played war with miniature soldiers.

But it wasn’t until the 20th century that toys began to be mass marketed—and therefore, patented. The classic playthings of the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s featured in the Toy Story series come from the golden age of toy innovation. We’ve searched the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office archives for the original patents and backstories on the now-beloved Toy Story characters.

Slinky Dog

None
(U.S. Design Pat. 179,949)

Slinky Dog, AKA “Slink,” is Woody’s loyal right-hand dog, who often uses his stretchable body to aid in rescues. Slink is, of course, based on the iconic Slinky toy, invented in the 1940s by naval engineer Richard James (and named by his wife, Betty). James was inspired by a torsion spring flipping over on a ship’s deck. But it was a northwestern lumber baron’s daughter named Helen Malsed who turned the Slinky into the Slinky Dog. Malsed, who’d been forced to drop out of college when the Depression hit, became a toy inventor, developing more than two dozen toys and games over the course of her career. Slinky Dog and its cousin, Slinky Train, were allegedly inspired by her 6-year-old son, who wanted to see what would happen if his Christmas Slinky had wheels attached. Her 1957 Slinky Dog patent shows Slink in both the closed and expanded position.

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