Local inventor who almost invented the Slinky
By Steve Lange
Otto Haling was a born tinkerer. As a class project in machine shop at Rochester High School in 1918, he built a full-sized tractor, which his father used for the next ten years on the family farm just north of the city (where the Valhalla and Elton Hills East subdivisions are today). Later, he opened a small machine shop in the Rochester Chick Hatchery on First Avenue Southeast, across the street from his home.
Around 1933 Haling designed a steel ventilated piston ring, which made the pistons in engines move more smoothly and cut the use of oil by more than half. Bending the thin Swedish steel bars for each ring was time consuming, so Haling invented a machine that made the bars into steel coils. Now he could produce upwards of 20,000 identically-shaped rings in a day. Because the coils were simply a way of making it easier to form the piston rings, he didn’t bother to patent them.
In 1943, a naval engineer named Richard James, while experimenting with one of Haling’s steel coils, dropped one on the floor, where it began to “walk.” Fascinated, James took the spring home to show his wife, Betty. “I think I can make a toy out of this,” he told her. Two years later, he patented the “walking” spring, which his wife had christened the Slinky. Exhibited at Gimbel’s Department Store in Philadelphia during the 1945 Christmas season, the Slinky was an instant success (and sold 100 million units in the first 10 years). Two hundred and fifty million Slinkys later, James Industries is still making and selling Slinkys, but since Haling’s steel coils were not protected by patent, he could only sigh and wish he’d seen their whimsical potential himself.
But Haling was more interested in the inventive process than in patenting his ideas. By the time he died in December 1991, he had developed over 100 inventions, including a boring machine to make compression piston rings and valve seats that made gasoline motors work more efficiently. He sold his piston rings—and other machine parts—all over the world. Every so often, he would come across one of his inventions being marketed in the trade catalogs under someone else’s trademark. Including the Slinky.