The stories behind "Toy Story's" beloved characters
The stories behind "Toy Story's" beloved characters 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/JD Hancock/Flickr)
The stories behind "Toy Story's" beloved characters
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Toys as old as civilization. Neolithic kids are presumed to have played with sticks and clay balls. Ancient Egyptian children had a game. It resembled 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 they were patented. Classic playthings of the 1950s, '60s, '70s and '80s are featured in the Toy Story series. They came 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

Slinky Dog, AKA "Slink," is Woody's loyal right-hand dog. He often uses his stretchable body to aid in rescues. Slink is based on the iconic Slinky toy. It was invented in the 1940s by naval engineer Richard James. It was named by his wife, Betty. James was inspired by a torsion spring flipping over on a ship's deck. But it was Helen Malsed who turned the Slinky into the Slinky Dog. She was a northwestern lumber baron's daughter. She'd been forced to drop out of college when the Depression hit. She became a toy inventor. She developed more than two dozen toys and games over the course of her career. Slinky Dog has a cousin, Slinky Train. They were allegedly inspired by her 6-year-old son. He 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 Etch A Sketch was invented by French electrical technician AndrÇ Cassagnes. He was inspired by an encounter at work. It was in a wallcovering factory. Cassagnes made some pencil marks on a protective decal while installing a light-switch plate. He 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. They were stuck to the decal through static. Cassagnes developed a toy based on the same principle. He received a patent for it in 1962. It was under the name of his accountant, Arthur Granjean. He would sell the rights for $25,000 to the Ohio Art Company. They made it an everlasting bestseller.  

Speak & Spell

Mr. Spell is based on the popular 1980s Speak & Spell toy. He is a professor-like character. He gives educational seminars on topics like "plastic corrosion." The Speak & Spell was created by Texas Instruments using solid state technology rather than tape-recorded speech. That's how all previous talking toys had were made. It was based on a primitive version of the synthetic speech technology that drives things like Alexa today. A 1985 patent for an "electronic talking learning aid" shows an early variety of the Speak & Spell. It was sold between 1978 and 1992.


Barbie helps Woody and the gang escape from Sunnyside daycare in Toy Story 3. Barbie is one of the most recognizable toys of the 20th century. Its creator is Ruth Handler. She was inspired by a German collectors' doll called Bild Lilli. She spotted the doll 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. She has gone on to many different careers. These careers include cowgirl and soccer coach. She's been an astronaut and a rapper. She's been a paratrooper and President. She has generated seemingly endless controversies about body image and gender roles. A 1961 patent shows the first version of Barbie. She has tightly curled bangs and a rather severe face. An unblemished original of this vintage could sell for tens of thousands of dollars.  

Chatter Telephone

The Chatter Telephone is traumatized by his stay at Sunnyside daycare. This reclusive toy 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. It's still being tugged around by toddlers today. Chatter's rolling eyes look especially creepy in a 1967 patent.

Care Bears

Toy Story 3 villain is Lots-O'-Huggin' Bear. He seems to be at least partly inspired by the wildly popular 1980s plush toy and cartoon Care Bears. But 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. A 1987 patent depicts Tenderheart Bear. He is one of the original 10 bears. Pixar actually created a hilariously real-looking vintage commercial to give Lots-O his own backstory.

Claw Crane

The squeaky toy aliens appear in all the Toy Story movies. They come from inside an arcade claw game at Pizza Planet, and consider "the Claw" to be their ruler. The alien toys are Pixar fiction. But, the claw machine has a very real and fascinating history. "Diggers" capitalized on the public interest in the machinery working on the Panama Canal. They 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 it the Miami Digger. It made him rich. And many children just a little bit poorer. The government cracked down on diggers in the mid-20th century. They saw them as "gambling machines." This forced operators into elaborate legal workarounds. The diggers would evolve into toy-filled claw crane machines. These were commonly seen in the 1980s in Pizza Huts and supermarkets.

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Which Toy Story character do you think would be a best-selling toy? Why?
Write your answers in the comments section below

  • jamesf-5
    9/13/2019 - 02:19 p.m.

    toys have come a long way from clay balls to toy cranes. toy makers have learned to make things based on what kids see in movies or shows so they will have more intrest and want to buy them.

  • samanthaf-14
    9/13/2019 - 02:25 p.m.

    I personally love this article. When I was younger I was thought my toys would come alive at night after I seen that movie. I always wondered how they came about. This article helped me understand.

  • albanas-
    9/13/2019 - 02:26 p.m.

    Woody. Woody is a cowboy doll that talks! He is iconic. Also, he is the only Toy Story character I know, so I can't really say anything for the other characters.

  • trevorn-
    9/13/2019 - 02:27 p.m.

    I like this article because it shows someone who felt like they had nothing but then stood up to depression and has made a very popular toy that is in 4 movies called toy story.

  • kristynf-
    9/13/2019 - 02:27 p.m.

    I think "Care Bears" would be the best selling toy. It was a tv show and it has a lot of characters. The "Care Bears" is a very sweet toy and is a very nice show.

  • kamoraj-
    9/13/2019 - 02:27 p.m.

    I used to watch toy story all the time when I was younger I've never had any questions about Toy Story until now. It will always be a original movie and none of the other child shows can take that away.

  • sheaf-
    9/13/2019 - 02:28 p.m.

    My favorite character is Little Bo Peep because she is fearless and not afraid to do anything that comes her way.

  • laurenw-4
    9/13/2019 - 02:29 p.m.

    My little brother loves the movie toy story so I have grown a better interest. Before that I wasn't as into toy story.

  • alexiss-7
    9/13/2019 - 02:29 p.m.

    I believe buzz light year would be a best selling toy. In the movie buzz light year quickly becomes a popular toy.

  • biankab-
    9/13/2019 - 02:29 p.m.

    This is a very interesting article that I enjoyed reading, I think its so cool how we now get to learn about the characters we grew up watching on "Toy Story" I grew up watching it, also it was one of my childhood favorites, its hard to believe that Slinky Dog was built in 1940!

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