Silly Putty – How Useless Goo Found Its Purpose

36415_silly_puttyNo moving parts! No fancy electronics! Just a simple ball of goo. Even so, Silly Putty remains one of the most popular toys ever invented by accident.

There are several versions of the story, but the most credible one involves Dr. James Wright, an engineer working for General Electric.  In 1943, Wright was asked to find a way to make synthetic rubber. He tried mixing different chemicals. One day he combined boric acid with silicone oil and produced a sticky substance with unusual properties.

Useless, plain and simple…

The new compound was gooey and elastic. It could be stretched farther and bounced higher than rubber. When whacked by a hammer, the stuff shattered. Yet it could be molded into odd shapes, and it kept its bounce under a wide range of temperatures. The substance was not a good substitute for rubber, though. It was too stretchy and sticky. In fact, none of the scientists at General Electric could find any practical way of using it. Finally, the company mailed samples of the strange material to engineers around the world in the hopes that someone would figure out what to do with it.

Goo finds a purpose…

By chance a wad of it ended up at a party attended by Paul Hodgson, an advertising man. Hodgson had been putting together a catalog for a toy store. When he saw adults at the party acting like children, tossing and stretching the stuff around the room, he decided to include the “nutty putty” in the catalog. The results were surprising. Nutty Putty outsold every other item in the catalog except crayons.

silly_putty

Hodgson realized he had a winner. He borrowed $147 and bought a chunk of the stuff from General Electric. He changed the name to Silly Putty, and hired a student to separate it into one-ounce balls (about thirty grams) and package them in plastic egg-like containers. Just in time for Easter, he sold them for a dollar.  After a New Yorker article mentioned Silly Putty, Hodgson sold over 250,000 eggs in three days. In the first five years alone, over 32 million containers of it were sold worldwide.

More uses…

Devotees of Silly Putty have discovered many uses for the goop: picking up dirt and lint; fastening it to a wobble table leg to stabilize the table; sticking it to newspaper to lift images off the page; squishing it to strength one’s grip.  In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts used it to secure tools in zero gravity, and in 2001, Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Since its introduction into the marketplace, an estimated 300 million eggs of the once useless stuff have been sold worldwide.

For more information about Silly Putty, check out these websites:

Mental Floss: 15 Facts About Silly Putty
Wiki-how: Five Ways to Make Silly Putty
National Toy Hall of Fame: Silly Putty

If weird breakthroughs like Silly Putty interest you, you’ll find 80 stories like it in Accidental Discoveries: From Laughing Gas to Dynamite.

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