Myth Trivia: Mark Twain, O.Henry and a toy called “Slinky”


CHARLOTTE, N.C., April 16, 2015 – This week a couple of famous authors take center stage in our trivial pursuit with a well-known children’s toy in between.

1 – O. Henry’s Counting Error, or Was It?: Most of us are familiar with the famous short story “The Gift of the Magi” by the author named O. Henry, who was known for his surprise endings.

The first paragraph begins like this: “One dollar and eighty-seven cents. That was all. And sixty cents of it was in pennies. Pennies saved one and two at a time by bulldozing the grocer and the vegetable man and the butcher until one’s cheeks burned with the silent imputation that such close dealing implied. Three times Della counted it. One dollar and eight-seven cents. And the next day would be Christmas.”

So far, so good. Or was it? If Della had $1.87 and sixty cents was in pennies, then the remaining dollar and twenty-seven cents would have been made up of other coins. Does that mean that William Sydney Porter, O. Henry’s real name, was not able to count? How could he make $1.27 without any pennies?

“The Gift of the Magi” was published in 1905 and, at that time, American currency still had coins that were worth two cents. Though none of those coins had been minted since 1873, at the time O. Henry penned his story the two-cent pieces were still in circulation.

So there was actually no accounting error on O. Henry’s part after all. It was simply a matter of “common cents.”

Read Also:   Myth Trivia: Playing Cards, Play-Doh and the truth about Humpty Dumpty

2 – The “Slinky” was Invented as a Stabilizing Device: When Richard James, a naval mechanical engineer, accidentally knocked one of the springs he was developing to stabilize ships during rough seas from a shelf, it magically curled its way in a series of small arcs from a stack of books to a tabletop and then to the floor before stopping in an upright position. Without realizing it, James had invented the “Slinky.”

James went home that night and told his wife Betty, “I think if I got the property of steel and the right tension; I could make it walk.”

Betty rolled her eyes in doubt but later changed her mind when her husband fine-tuned his creation and demonstrated it to the children in the neighborhood. It was not long after that Betty came up with the name “Slinky” from a word she found in the dictionary meaning “sleek and graceful.”

The toy was introduced at Gimbel’s department store in Philadelphia in November of 1945 with such popularity that the entire inventory of 400 pieces sold out in just 90 minutes.

Whether or not “Slinky” made its way aboard ships as intended is not known, but the toy certainly “stabilized” the James household income.

3 – Tom Sawyer was the First Book Written on a Typewriter: Or was it?:

Popular accounts say that Mark Twain once boasted, “I was the first person in the world that ever had a telephone in his house.”

He also boldly stated, “I was the first person in the world to apply the ‘typemachine’ to literature.’”

According to Twain’s autobiography, it was the manuscript for Tom Sawyer in 1874 that was typed, but typewriter historian Richard Rehr disputes the author’s recollection. Rehr claims the first book that was published from a typed manuscript was actually Life on the Mississippi, written years later in 1882.

Either way it was a work of Mark Twain that receives the credit, although he did not do the typing himself. Twain supposedly dictated the story and a secretary typed the manuscript.

There is evidence that Mark Twain did compose some occasional letters on a “type writing” machine in 1874, but the actual publication of a novel came nearly a decade later.

Perhaps more important is the unanswered question about his telephone. If he had the only phone in his house, then whom did he call?

Bob Taylor has been traveling the world for more than 30 years as a writer and award winning television producer focusing on international events, people and cultures around the globe.

Taylor is founder of The Magellan Travel Club (

Read more of What in the World and Bob Taylor at Communities Digital News

Follow Bob on Twitter @MrPeabod

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