How an Industrial Oops Led This Gunk to Become a Stretchy Smash-Hit Toy
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Sorry to burst your bubble, kids, but there’s really nothing that silly about Silly Putty. Not when you think about all you can do with the goopy gunk and how it strangely came to be.
You can wad it up and bounce it like a ball, stretch it wisp-thin like Laffy Taffy and squish it into shapes like Play-Doh. Or you can flatten it out and pick up fingerprints and comic strip ink with it. Astronauts aboard the Apollo 8 famously put it to work in a clever way. They used the sticky stuff, originally intended to ease their boredom, to stop small instruments from floating amuck in zero gravity. Silly? Nah, we call that ingenuity.
The classic pinkish novelty blob -- let’s call it a sliquid; it's not really a solid and not really a liquid -- has amused millions of kids and adults the world over for more than six decades. But it was never intended to. In fact, the springy polymer wasn’t supposed to be a toy at all. Like penicillin and saccharine, it was the product of a laboratory accident, invented by mistake.
The year was 1943. We were in the grips of World War II and in the midst a severe rubber shortage. We badly needed more of the rationed natural resource to keep our military machines rolling toward victory. Desperate for a solution, the government commissioned the chemical engineers at General Electric’s lab in New Haven, Conn., to create an inexpensive wartime rubber alternative, and fast.
One such GE chemist tasked with the tall order was Scottish inventor James Wright. The story goes that he concocted the viscoelastic compound by haphazardly mixing silicone oil and boric acid together. Some say a glass test tube of the sludge slipped through his fingers and fell to the floor. When the vial smashed open, the fleshy gunk inside oozed out, appearing to melt onto the floor. It was irresistible to the touch.
Wright and his colleagues played with the whacky mixture, bouncing it around the lab like a rubber ball, even shattering it with a powerful thwack. They circulated samples of it to other scientists across the country and toted small slabs of it to corporate cocktail parties for GE executives to mess with. But, failed use-case test after failed use-case test, good, clean fun was all Wright and his colleagues ever got out of the weird, new -- and completely useless -- malleable amalgam.
In the end, the “goofy goo” GE chemists offhandedly called “nutty putty” and “bouncing putty” wasn’t even close to strong enough to replace rubber. It was a flop. That is, until 1949, when New Haven toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter attended a GE soirée and sunk her enterprising hands into the gunk. The entrepreneur took a chance and hired advertising copywriter Peter Hodgson to include it in her holiday toy catalogue. She encased globs of the goop in clear plastic cases and priced them at $2.00 each. The putty outsold everything else in the catalogue, but Fallgatter’s interest soon waned and she discontinued the quirky product.
Sticking with it
Hodgson, seeing dollar signs where his toy store client had not, picked up where she left off. He borrowed $147 to buy as much of the stuff as he could, and renamed it Silly Putty. Smart move. With an eye on Easter sales, Hodgson paid some Yale college students to stuff it into translucent plastic eggs. He priced each egg at $1. Then, off to the 1950 International Toy Fair he went with his unusual wares.
He came home with zero sales.
Undeterred, Hodgson, who described his product as a five-minute “escape from neurosis,” later appealed to Neiman Marcus and Doubleday stores. Doubleday bit and, soon, a writer for The New Yorker stumbled across Silly Putty in one of its shops. The columnist quickly made positive mention of the strange new plaything in an article and sales blew up. Hodgson sold 750,000 eggs in the three days following the article, according to Stephen Dulken, author of Inventing the 20th Century: 100 Inventions That Shaped the World (NYU Press, 2002).
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Leveraging another new invention, Hodgson used his initial profits to create a TV commercial for Silly Putty (starring himself, in which he is smoking) that hooked his target market -- parents looking to wow their kids with the latest thing. Some 350 million have since. That’s approximately 5,500 tons of Silly Putty eggs sold since 1950.
It bears noting that rumors have long swirled that another chemist, Dow Corning’s Earl Warrick, could be the original father of Silly Putty, not Wright. Interestingly, Warrick’s patent for “dimethyl silicone polymer with boric oxide” was filed the year prior to Wright’s. Crayola, which acquired the exclusive manufacturing rights to Silly Putty in 1977 and maintains its secret formula, credits Wright for discovering it and Hodgson for popularizing it as a toy.
Today, Crayola sells a handful of variations of Silly Putty, from glow-in-the-dark and metallic versions, to one nostalgically boxed in a throwback retro package. Exactly like Hodgson’s original from 1950, it reads, “Nothing else is...Silly Putty. Wonder Toy of the 20th Century.” And, so far, the wubbulous wonder is still sticking around through the 21st century, bouncing along strong.
Will Silly Putty ever go away? We doubt it. Last we checked, it’s not recyclable.