A Treasure Trove of Fun in 'Timeless Toys' Toy inventor Tim Walsh's book Timeless Toys is full of stories about a century of all things playful. He fills Liane Hansen with facts about the Slinky, Play-Doh, Lincoln Logs and other fundamentals of fun.
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A Treasure Trove of Fun in 'Timeless Toys'

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A Treasure Trove of Fun in 'Timeless Toys'

A Treasure Trove of Fun in 'Timeless Toys'

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(Soundbite of them song for Slinky ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs and makes a slinking sound? A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing, everyone knows it's Slinky.

LIANE HANSEN, host:

It's a safe bet that not many Slinky's are stuffed into stockings this Christmas morning. But once upon a time, the silver-colored cascading wire walker was among the most popular toy innovations.

(Soundbite of chattering teeth)

HANSEN: Or perhaps as a child, you found in your stocking a set of wind-up plastic chattering teeth known as Yakety Yak Talking Teeth. Toy inventor Tim Walsh, is an expert on games and toys and his new book, "Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them," is filled with stories about all things playful, from the Flexible Flyer in 1900 to Beanie Babies in 1993. And Tim Walsh is in the studios of WUSF in Tampa, Florida.

Hi, Tim.

Mr. TIM WALSH ("Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them"): Good morning, Liane. How are you?

HANSEN: I'm well, thank you. I have to ask you because I think we're of a certain age. I've never been able to do this. Have you ever successfully walked a Slinky down a set of stairs?

Mr. WALSH: No, and that's because steps have changed. They used to be narrower. And Slinky worked a lot better back in the days when we had narrower steps. So they don't walk as well as they used to.

HANSEN: Tell us the story behind that wire walker.

Mr. WALSH: Well, you can't get further away from toys than war, and World War II was responsible for the Slinky. Richard James was an engineer on a naval boat and he thought that suspending sensitive equipment by string--by springs, rather, would make them function better. And the legend goes that he knocked a spring off his desk and it walked. And he brought it home to his wife, Betty, and said, `I think we can make a toy out of this.' And 300 million Slinkys later, and, of course, he was right.

HANSEN: Lincoln Logs have been around forever, as well. There's this--you know, so many holiday celebrations where that box gets opened and you start building forts and cabins and such.

Mr. WALSH: Yes.

HANSEN: I didn't realize that it was actually invented by a relative, close relative, of one of the 19th century's greatest architects.

Mr. WALSH: Yes. Frank Lloyd Wright, the famous architect, his son, John Lloyd Wright, was accompanying his father in Japan. They were building the Imperial Hotel, and it was earthquake proof because it used floating cantilever construction very similar to Lincoln Logs. And John Lloyd Wright saw these beams being put into place and thought, `Boy, kids would really love to play with this.' And he came back to the States and, in 1916, gave us Lincoln Logs, a toy that has sold over 100 million sets since then. And who knows how many architects have been influenced by building with those logs?

HANSEN: Did John Lloyd Wright--was he able to make his fortune off Lincoln Logs?

Mr. WALSH: He did quite well. He sold the company in 1946 to Playskool. I'm not sure for how much. But for years, Lincoln Logs sold well. In fact, they were on the market for 30 years when, in the 1950s, everything Western became hot in the toy world. Kids were wearing raccoon-skin caps and Daniel Boone was on TV and, certainly, Lincoln Logs benefited from that surge in Western toys.

HANSEN: You tell the story of so many toys and how they made it from, you know, the inventor's brain on to the shelves of the toy store. You talk about Alfred Butts who invented Scrabble. And he tried to sell the game--it was something like 17 years before he convinced Milton Bradley to mass produce it. The toy business is not an easy one. You have invented games: Tribond and Blurt!, and they were rejected by every major toy company in the United States. So is there--I don't know. Do you see a little bit of your life in the life of the Scrabble saga?

Mr. WALSH: Well, I certainly think it's a badge of honor in this industry to be rejected. Because history shows--and one of the reasons I wrote the book is because it's always someone in their kitchen or their basement messing around, trying to make a ball curve or create a game. They're the ones who are going to come up with the next big hit in this industry. So, you know, I struggled with my games for a few years, no where near as long as Scrabble was on the market. And during terrible economic times--came out of 1931. Alfred Butts was struggling, trying to, you know, feed his family and self-produced this game for years and years. And was about to give up when an entrepreneur approached him and said, `Hey, we--I love this game. Let's do it.' And they changed the name to Scrabble and, of course, the rest is game history.

HANSEN: Tim Walsh wrote "Timeless Toys: Classic Toys and the Playmakers Who Created Them." The book is published by Andrews McMeel Publishing and the author joined us from the studios of WUSF in Tampa, Florida.

(Soundbite of them song for Slinky ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) ...fellow. A Slinky dog, a Slinky train, many more wonderful toys.

HANSEN: Test your toy trivia knowledge at our Web site, npr.org.

(Soundbite of them song for Slinky ad)

Unidentified Woman: (Singing) They're Slinkys, they're Slinkys, really wonderful toys. They're Slinkys, they're Slinkys, they're fun for girls and boys.

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