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.


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.

History’s Dynamic Daredevil Duo

Photo Source: Wikipedia Commons

As a war prisoner in Buda, Hungary, Frenchman André Jacques Garnerin had time on his hands.  Time to plot his escape. He thought of breaking down the door to his prison, of overpowering his guards and a dozen other schemes.  But his wildest idea was to leap from the window of his prison tower and drift to the ground holding an umbrella-like device.

Garnerin was still hatching this scheme when the war ended in 1797 and he was released, but he never forgot it.  He was so taken by the idea that he built the contraption of his dreams – a 7 meter canopy made from white canvas styled much like an umbrella with 36 ribs.  An “umbrella pole” ran down the center of a basket large enough to carry a human.

Taking the plunge

On October 22, 1797, in front of a crowd of spectators at Parc Monceau in Paris, Garnerin inflated a large hydrogen balloon and hooked the ‘umbrella’ to it.  The balloon rose into the air carrying Garnerin in the basket.  At 900 metres, Garnerin cut the connecting cord.  It was a tense moment.  “I was on the point of cutting the cord that suspended me between heaven and earth and measured with my eye the vast space that separated me from the rest of the human race,” he reported later.

Once cut, the balloon shot skyward. Garnerin plunged to the ground.

Photo source: Wikipedia Commons
Photo source: Wikipedia Commons

Fortunately, as the canopy filled with air, it billowed, slowing his fall.  But air trapped in the canopy spilled from the edges, making Garnerin’s parachute sway back and forth.  At first the motion was gentle and soothing, but as more air gushed from the canopy, its pace quickened sending the canopy and its inventor careening wildly from side to side.  Nausea swept over Garnerin. He dropped to the ground uninjured, promptly mounted his horse, and rode through the crowd of admirers ending the world’s first-ever successful parachute jump from a hydrogen balloon.

Birth of the dynamic duo

Among the spectators that day was 22-year-old Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse.  Inspired by Garnerin’s stunt, she befriended him, became his student, and later his wife.

On October 12, 1799, Jeanne tested the device herself.  From a balloon hovering at an altitude of 900 metres, she parachuted to the ground in the gondola basket.  With her daredevil act, Jeanne joined André in the league of daredevils, becoming the first woman to complete a parachute jump from a lighter-than-air balloon.

Spectators watching Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)
Spectators watching Jeanne Genevieve Labrosse (Photo Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Today, a plaque in Parc Monceau marks the site of Garnerin’s landing spot, and adding to the distinction, a street in Paris has been named after him, too.  Jeanne has not been forgotten either.  On October 17, 2006, a street in Wissous, France, was named in her honour.

For Further Reading

Bonjour Paris – An Insider’s Guide: André-Jacques Garnerin: The Parachutist of Parc Monceau

Finding John McCrae in Flanders’ Fields

In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row

John McCrae, May 3, 1915

Last year, on our trip to Belgium, we toured a number of World War I cemeteries in Flanders, Seeing thousands of ‘crosses row on row’ does something to a person. It left me with a much greater appreciation for John McCrae’s famous poem, In Flanders Fields.  It also left me withsharpened sense of the realities of war.

One of the most profound moments came with a visit to St.Julien Canadian Memorial.  St Julien’s lies alongside the main road from Ypres to Brugges.  As soon as I stepped out of our car, I felt a hushed presence. Our voices grew softer.  Even the wind seemed to still.  Rising almost 11 meters above a stone courtyard surrounded by tall cedars, a single shaft of granite dominated the site.


From the top of the column, a soldier looked down.  His head was bowed, his shoulders hunched, and his hands rested on a reversed rifle. The soldier’s face was etched with sorrow.  Often called “The Brooding Soldier”, the statue evoked strong feelings. I couldn’t help but sense this soldier’s pain and feel his loss.

The Brooding Soldier commemorates one of the most tragic events of World War I. In the first week of April 1915, the Canadian First Division moved to the front lines at Ypres.  On either side of the Canadian trenches, Allied forces stood ready – two British divisions to the right, one French division to the left.

On April 22, Germans launched an attack and introduced an unprecedented weapon. Fanned by a north breeze, 168 tons of yellow-green chlorine gas rolled across the fields, infiltrating trenches of the French line, and searing the lungs of unprotected soldiers. In panic, French troops broke rank and abandoned their posts, leaving a 6 kilometer gap in the Allied line.

To close the gap, Canadian troops moved into position throughout the night. Despite heavy bombardment, they held the line for two days. Then on April 24, Germans launched an offensive, bombing heavily and releasing another wave of chlorine gas. This time Canadian troops were the target. The gas drifted across the field, into trenches, and through handkerchiefs held over mouths and noses. Confined by machine-gun fire, Canadian soldiers still held their position until reinforcements arrived.


Canadians paid a toll for their bravery. Of the approximately 18,000 Canadian soldiers, 6035 became casualties, and of that number 2000 died.

The memorial at St.Julien was designed by Regina architect, Frederick Chapman Clemesha, who was wounded while serving with Canadian forces in the war. It was unveiled in 1923 on the site where the gas attacks occurred.

picture3Canadian physician, John McCrae, wrote In Flanders Fields, on May 3, 1915, barely two weeks after the gas attacks that claimed so many lives. According to many sources, McCrae was inspired to write it after presiding over the funeral of fellow soldier Alexis Helmer who died in a subsequent battle in the Ypres area.  I have no doubt the gas attacks were fresh in McCrae’s his mind, too.

“We are the Dead.
Short days ago wee lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved and were loved, and now we lie

In Flanders fields”

John McCrae

Barnes Wallis Bounces to Victory

Torpedoes couldn’t do the job. Ordinary bombs dropped from planes couldn’t either. But Barnes Wallis bouncing bombs held promise.

During World War II, German aircraft pounded Britain, dropping a hail of bombs on it cities.  To turn the tide of the war, Britain needed to cripple Germany’s bomb factories.  Most of them were in the Ruhr Valley, a low-lying area fed by rivers and protected by dams.  Destroying the dams and flooding the region seemed to be the best way to bring the German war machine to its knees.

But how? The dams were protected by torpedo nets. Bombs dropped from planes tended to roll forward and miss their targets.   A more accurate bomb, one that could dodge the torpedo nets and still hit its mark, was needed.

Barnes Wallis - Imperial War Collection
Barnes Wallis (Imperial War Museum Archives)

If anyone could produce one, it was Barnes Wallis, a well-known aircraft designer and scientist.  As he pondered the problem, Wallis remembered a childhood game, skipping stones across the surface of the lake. If stones pitched at just the right angle bounced and hopped across the water, was it possible to do the same to a bomb?  Release it at just the right angle, make it skim across the water, bounce over the protective torpedo nets, and land at the base of the dam where it could do the most damage?

Wallis started a series of tests in his laboratory.  Using a small catapult, he fired marbles across a tub of water.  They skimmed the water, but bounced in all directions – spherical shapes, he discovered, moved in unpredictable ways.  Next he carved a series of fat, cigar-shaped models and fired these across the water. These flatter, barrel-like shapes worked better. Adding a bit of back-spin as the models left the catapult improved their accuracy even more and prevented them from plowing into the water..

ROYAL AIR FORCE BOMBER COMMAND, 1942-1945. (IWM FLM 2342) Operation CHASTISE: the attack on the Moehne, Eder and Sorpe Dams by No. 617 Squadron RAF on the night of 16/17 May 1943. No. 617 Squadron practice dropping the 'Upkeep' weapon at Reculver bombing range, Kent. Second launch sequence (4): the bomb rises from the water after its first 'bounce'. Copyright: © IWM. Original Source:
Squadron practice (Imperial War Museum Archives)
Squadron practice at Kent, England (Imperial War Museum Archives)

The idea of bouncing explosives seemed far-fetched. But Wallis ignored his critics. He filled notebooks with detailed measurements and calculations, as he eliminated some designs and perfected others. Finally satisfied that he had enough information, he set about building life-sized bombs to do the job. They were monsters. Weighing as much as two cars, the bombs were almost 2 meters long and more than a meter  thick.  Each one carried 2722 kilograms of high explosives.

To give the bombs back-spin as they left the plane, a motor rigged to a chain rotated them just before release.  Churning at a speed of 500 revolutions per minute, the spinning bombs would hit the water and skip across it rather than plunging down.

Bomb attached to bomb bay Imperial War Museum Archives
Bomb attached to bomb bay (Imperial War Museum Archives)

Dropping the bombs at just the right angle and height was critical. The problem was solved with two simple flashlights, one fixed in the nose of the plane, the other in the tail. The flashlights were angled downwards so that when the plane was at a height of 18 meters, their beams crossed.  When that happened, the pilot knew he was at the proper height to release the bombs.

On May 16, 1943, under the cover of darkness, nineteen planes carrying skip bombs left Britain.  Flying low, the planes swooped over Holland and into German territory.   As they approached the dams along the Ruhr Valley, the pilots released their bombs, sending them spinning and skipping across the water.

Canadian airmen who took part in the raid of May 16/17, 1943

Barnes Wallis’ crazy idea worked.  The skip bombs destroyed two dams, flooding the valley, washing away factories and roads, bringing power and transportation to a standstill.  The German war ground to a halt.

This story was originally published in Extreme Science: Science in the Danger Zone under the title Bombs That Bounce.  It has been adapted & updated for this blog.

For Further Reading:

Imperial War Museum: The Incredible Story Of The Dambusters Raid

History Learning Site: The Damnbusters 

Ann Hodges’ Terrible, Horrible, No Good Day

Her arm and hip were throbbing with pain. Already, giant bruises were forming. There was dust everywhere.

Thirty-one year old Ann Hodges was asleep on the couch in the living room of the house she was renting in Sylacauga, Alabama. Her mother, Ida Franklin, was in the next room. Her husband, Eugene, was in nearby Alexander City, clearing trees from telephone lines.

That day, November 30, 1954, the Sylacauga neighborhood was quiet. Most people were at work or school. A few, like 5-year-old Billy Field, were outdoors when at 12:47 p.m precisely, the normal day turned upside down.

“All of a sudden, a giant rocket of smoke crossed the sky,” Billy would say years later. “I remember the white smoke and then an explosion.”

At almost the same moment, Ann Hodges woke up with a start. She’d heard a bang. Her arm and hip were throbbing with pain. Already, giant bruises were forming. There was dust everywhere.

A few seconds later, Ida dashed into the room. She, too, had heard the sound, and like Ann she looked for a reason. Had the chimney collapsed? Had the space heater exploded?

Then they spotted a rock on the floor. It was black, the size of a pineapple, hefty, too – about 4 kilograms. When they looked up, they noticed a ragged hole in the ceiling. Darn those neighbour kids, they both thought. They’ve been throwing rocks again.

Ida raced outside to catch the culprits. There were no kids around, but she did see a strange black cloud in the sky. Figuring they should report the incident, the two women phoned the police and the fire department.

Authorities arrived shortly after. There had been urgent calls from others in town. Some reported hearing an explosion, others a fireball streaking overhead. Had an airplane gone down? Had there been an attack of some sort?

An investigation was started. The chief of police showed up. The town mayor, too. He called a state geologist to look at the rock. This is no ordinary rock, he told them. You’ve got a meteorite here.

mrs. hodges, mayor, police chief examine hole caused by a meteorite that struck mrs. hodges in sylacauga. university of alabama museum of natural history
Ann Hodges, mayor & police chief examine a hole caused by a meteorite that struck Ann Hodges in Sylacauga. (University of Alabama Museum of Natural History)

Now it all made sense in a strange way. A meteorite had streaked through earth’s atmosphere. Burning hot and bright, it had crashed through the Hodges’ roof, ricocheted off a console radio beside the couch, bounced off Ann’s arm, then struck her hip as she slept peacefully.

The New York Daily News carried the story

The news spread. No one, records showed, had ever been struck by a meteorite before. As far as anyone could tell, Ann Hodges was the first in all of history. Reporters showed up ten, twenty at a time, all eager to interview Ann, all wanting a slice of the story. Confused by the attention, Ann retreated to the bedroom, her arm and hip swollen.

By the time, Eugene Hodges returned home at the end of the day there was a long line of cars outside and 200 reporters roaming about the yard and through the house.

“I had a time getting in,” Eugene said. “I had to push some out of my way.”

The next day, Ann Hodges was admitted to hospital. She wasn’t badly injured, but her doctor felt it would be best to give her privacy and protect her from the media.

While Ann recovered, a full-scale bidding war developed. Eugene figured the meteorite was his and worth big money. The Smithsonian Institute put in an offer. So did an Arizona museum. In the end, the parties settled out of court. Ownership of the meteorite was assigned to the Hodges.

In 1956, against her husband’s wishes, Ann donated the meteorite to the Alabama Museum of Natural History. Today, the Hodges Meteorite – the only meteorite proven to have struck a human being – is on display at the museum. A patch of tar from the Hodges’ roof is still visible on its charred surface.

For Further Reading:

National Geographic News: The True Story of History’s Only Known Meteorite Victim 

Nature World News: Meet Ann Hodges, the Only Confirmed Person in History to be Hit by a Meteorite 


Annie Edson Taylor’s Wild Ride

If it was with my dying breath, I would caution anyone against attempting the feat…. I would sooner walk up to the mouth of a cannon, knowing it was going to blow me to pieces than make another trip over the Fall.

Annie Edson Taylor

Annie Edson Taylor’s wild ride began on the US side of Niagara Falls just after 4 pm on October 24th, 1901.  The 63-year-old school teacher climbed into a retrofitted pickle barrel. She ordered two assistants to seal it.  Using a bicycle pump, the air pressure was compressed to 30 p.s.i.  The barrel was rowed by boat to the middle of the river and released.  It bobbed for a few moments, then caught by the fast-flowing current raced towards Horseshoe Falls.

the-barrel-in-a-boatFor thousands of spectators on shore, the barrel looked ordinary enough – five feet tall, a little over 3 feet wide, made of white oak slats secured with iron rings.  Inside, however, things were less ordinary.  Taylor had equipped the barrel with a few features – cushions, a leather harness to keep her strapped to the sides, and a 200-pound anvil – ballast to keep the barrel upright as it charged towards the falls.

In Search of Elusive Fortune

Annie Edson Taylor was on the brink of a financial meltdown – a poor teacher facing retirement on meager savings. When she read a magazine article describing other daredevil attempts, the proverbial light bulb went on.  A plunge over the falls – the first person to do so – would be just the thing to bring fame and fortune.

Annie with her cat in a publicity photo
Annie with her cat

Two days before the launch, Taylor tested the barrel.  She sealed her cat inside, then shot the animal over the falls. The cat survived with just a few scratches, and minutes after being pulled from the barrel posed with Taylor in a publicity photo.

Annie’s Turn

Caught in the surging river, the barrel swept towards the falls, gaining speed and momentum.  It shot over the precipice, disappearing momentarily in the mist before bobbing into view again.  It drifted downstream, then came to rest against a rock, intact and largely unscathed.

Taylor’s crew retrieved the barrel and pried it open. The teacher emerged, in shock, slightly bruised, and but for a small cut to her head, largely uninjured.

downloadTaylor’s wild ride lasted only 20 minutes, just long enough to secure her place in the record books.  Newspapers around the nation featured her story:

The New York Times, October 25, 1901


She Is Alive, but Suffering Greatly from Shock
Plunges from the Horseshoe Cataract —
— Thousands View the Attempt —
“Don’t Try It,” She Advises Others

Taylor’s dream of ongoing fame and fortune never quite materialized. Interest in her story waned quickly.  She died in 1921, age 82, penniless and destitute.  The Oakwood Cemetery Association in Niagara Falls, New York donated a grave to honor her place in Niagara Falls history.



While it is currently against the law to attempt a stunt at the Falls, over the years many objects – living and artificial – have taken the plunge, some successfully, but many more not.  From people on rubber rafts and in steel barrels to tightrope walkers and bears in schooners, the Falls has been a magnet for thrill seekers.  For a full list, check Wikipedia’s page List of Objects That Have Gone Over Niagara Falls.

5 Weird Weather Bonanzas

A hotter than average summer brought an unexpected discovery recently. In the melt of a retreating glacier, Italian officials found the remains of 24 year-old Canadian Gregory Barnes who had gone missing in 1980 while skiing in the Italian and Swiss Alps.

For his family who had wondered about his fate, this brought long overdue closure.  For me, it was a reminder that strange, beyond-our-control circumstances have often been sources of unexpected discoveries.  Here are 5 accidental finds that owe their existence not so much to normal logic as they do to unpredictable weather conditions.

1974 – Ethiopia, Africa

When paleoanthropologist Donald Johanson awoke on the morning of November 30, 1974, he had a hunch “something terrific might happen.”  In a region he’d searched before, he walked along a gully recently created by a flash flood.  Among the churned stones and debris, he spotted a fossilized arm bone and several other bone fragments, all of them human-like and very old. They proved to be the remains of an adult female who lived millions of years ago.  Named Lucy after a popular Beatles song, it was the oldest and most complete human discovered up until that time.

1986 – Sea of Galilee, Israel

After a severe drought, the water level in the Sea of Galilee dropped, exposing areas of sea floor never seen before.  Two brothers, Yuval and Moshe Lufan, spotted a murky outline in the mud along that shoreline.  It turned out to be a fishing boat built 2000 years ago that had been preserved in the mud. Composed of twelve different kinds of wood, including sycamore, laurel, oak and cedar, the  vessel matched descriptions of fishing vessels given in the Bible, and was likely the kind of craft used to sail the sea during the time of Jesus.

1991 – Italian Alps

Following a summer of unusual heat, two German hikers – Helmut Simon and his wife, Erika- discovered a body embedded in a slowly melting glacier. Thinking it was an unfortunate hiker who had slipped and fallen to his death, Helmut took a photo of the body before continuing down the mountain to alert authorities. What the Simon’s found instead was a 5000 year old mummy, one of the oldest and best preserved ever discovered.  Nicknamed Otzi the Iceman, the mummy is now on display in the South Tyrol Museum of Archaeology in Bolzano, Italy.


1994 – St. Lawrence River

After a strong storm swept through the area near his cottage along the St Lawrence River, Marc Tremblay spotted pots, rifles, axes, bottles and the timbers of a ship half-buried in the sand.  Called to investigate, archaeologists discovered the wreck of the Elizabeth and Mary, one of 32 English ships that led an attack on Quebec City in 1690 and then sank in a wild storm while making a hasty retreat.



2004 – Florida
After Hurricane Jeanne slammed the Atlantic coast, scraping away sand and relocating dunes, archaeologist Joel Ruth used a metal detector to comb the shoreline. He spotted a Spanish silver coin on the beach.  “I grabbed it and then every foot it was – bam, bam – another hit,” he reported.  After 4 hours of searching, the batteries of his metal detector died, but not before Ruth had found more than 180 silver coins worth more than $40,000.



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