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)
smithsonianmag.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.

Claw Crane

None
(U.S. Pat. 1,882,563)

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.

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