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
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, 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.
Etch A Sketch
Shiny red Etch A Sketch—“Sketch” in the movies—uses his writing ability to send messages to the toy team. The venerable Etch A Sketch was invented by French electrical technician André Cassagnes, who was inspired by a serendipitous encounter at work in a wallcovering factory. Cassagnes made some pencil marks on a protective decal while installing a light-switch plate, and saw that the marks were visible on the other side of the decal. This was because the pencil had made lines through particles of a metallic powder produced in the factory, which were stuck to the decal through static. Inspired, Cassagnes developed a toy based on the same principle, which he received a patent for in 1962 under the name of his accountant, Arthur Granjean. He would sell the rights for $25,000 to the Ohio Art Company, which made it an everlasting bestseller.
Speak & Spell
Mr. Spell, based on the popular 1980s Speak & Spell toy, is a professor-like character who gives educational seminars on topics like “plastic corrosion.” The Speak & Spell was created by Texas Instruments (yes, the people behind your high school graphing calculator) using solid state technology rather than tape-recorded speech, as all previous talking toys had done. It was based on a primitive version of the synthetic speech technology that drives things like Alexa today. This 1985 patent for an “electronic talking learning aid” shows an early variety of the Speak & Spell, which was sold between 1978 and 1992.
Despite being enamored with a narcissistic Ken, Barbie helps Woody and the gang escape from Sunnyside daycare in Toy Story 3. Barbie is, of course, one of the most recognizable toys of the 20th century. Its creator, Ruth Handler, was inspired by a German collectors’ doll called Bild Lilli she spotted in a Swiss shop. She introduced Barbie the “teenage fashion model,” named after her daughter, at the 1959 New York Toy Fair. She was an instant bestseller and has gone on to careers as diverse as cowgirl, soccer coach, astronaut, rapper, paratrooper and President, generating seemingly endless controversies about body image and gender roles. This 1961 patent shows the first version of Barbie, with her tightly curled bangs and rather severe face. An unblemished original of this vintage could sell for tens of thousands of dollars.
Traumatized by his stay at Sunnyside daycare, this reclusive Chatter Telephone aids—and later squeals on—Andy's toys in Toy Story 3. It’s based on the 1961 Fisher-Price pull toy of the same name, still being tugged around by toddlers today. Chatter’s rolling eyes look especially creepy in this 1967 patent.
Toy Story 3 villain Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear seems to be at least partly inspired by the wildly popular 1980s plush toy and cartoon Care Bears (though Lots-O lacks a “belly symbol”). The Care Bears were originally created as greeting card art from the American Greetings company; they became teddy bears and cartoons in 1983. This 1987 patent depicts Tenderheart Bear, one of the original 10 bears. Pixar actually created a hilariously real-looking vintage commercial to give Lots-O his own backstory.
The squeaky toy aliens that appear in all the Toy Story movies come from inside an arcade claw game at Pizza Planet, and consider "the Claw" to be their ruler. While the alien toys are Pixar fiction, the claw machine has a very real and fascinating history. Capitalizing on the public interest in the machinery working on the Panama Canal, “diggers” were a popular carnival attraction in the early 20th century. Players would insert a coin for a chance to scoop up a candy. In 1932, carnival operator William Bartlett patented an electric version he called the Miami Digger. It made him rich—and many children just a little bit poorer. In the mid-20th century, the government cracked down on diggers as “gambling machines,” forcing operators into elaborate legal workarounds. The diggers would evolve into the toy-filled claw crane machines made ubiquitous in the 1980s by Pizza Hut and supermarkets.