Silly Putty, one of the most popular toys of the 20th century, was invented accidentally. Find out what a war, an indebted advertising consultant, and a ball of goo have in common.
Need More Rubber
One of the most important resources needed for World War II war production was rubber. It was essential for tires (which kept the trucks moving) and boots (which kept the soldiers moving). It was also important for gas masks, life rafts, and even bombers. Beginning early in the war, the Japanese attacked many of the rubber-producing countries in Asia, drastically affecting the supply route. To conserve rubber, civilians in the United States were asked to donate old rubber tires, rubber raincoats, rubber boots, and anything else that consisted at least in part of rubber. Rations were placed even on gasoline to hinder people from driving their cars. Propaganda posters instructed people in the importance of carpooling and showed them how to care for their household rubber products so they would last the duration of the war.
Even with this home front effort, the rubber shortage threatened war production. The government decided to ask U.S. companies to invent a synthetic rubber that had similar properties but that could be made with non-restricted ingredients. In 1943, engineer James Wright was attempting to discover a synthetic rubber while working in General Electric's laboratory in New Haven, Conn. when he discovered something unusual. In a test tube, Wright had combined boric acid and silicone oil, producing an interesting gob of goo.
Wright conducted a multitude of tests on the substance and discovered it could bounce when dropped, stretch farther than regular rubber, didn't collect mold, and had a very high melting temperature. Unfortunately, though it was a fascinating substance, it didn't contain the properties needed to replace rubber. Still, Wright assumed there had to be some practical use for the interesting putty. Unable to come up with an idea himself, Wright sent samples of the putty to scientists around the world. However, none of them found a use for the substance either.
An Entertaining Substance
Though perhaps not practical, the substance continued to be entertaining. The "nutty putty" began to be passed around to family and friends and even taken to parties to be dropped, stretched, and molded to the delight of many. In 1949, the ball of goo found its way to Ruth Fallgatter, an owner of a toy store who regularly produced a catalog of toys. Advertising consultant Peter Hodgson convinced Fallgatter to place globs of the goo in plastic cases and add it to her catalog. Selling for $2 each, the "bouncing putty" outsold everything else in the catalog except for a set of 50-cent Crayola crayons. After a year of strong sales, Fallgatter decided to drop the bouncing putty from her catalog.
Hodgson saw an opportunity. Already $12,000 in debt, Hodgson borrowed another $147 and bought a large quantity of the putty in 1950. He then had Yale students separate the putty into one-ounce balls and place them inside red plastic eggs. Since "bouncing putty" didn't describe all of the putty's unusual and entertaining attributes, Hodgson thought hard about what to call the substance. After much contemplation and numerous options suggested, he decided to name the goo "Silly Putty" and to sell each egg for $1.
In February 1950, Hodgson took Silly Putty to the International Toy Fair in New York but most people there did not see potential for the new toy. Luckily, Hodgson did manage to get Silly Putty stocked at both Nieman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores. A few months later, a reporter for The New Yorker stumbled across Silly Putty at a Doubleday bookstore and took home an egg. Fascinated, the writer wrote an article in the "Talk of the Town" section that appeared on August 26, 1950. Immediately, orders for Silly Putty started pouring in.
Adults First, Then Children
Silly Putty, marked as "The Real Solid Liquid," was at first considered a novelty item (i.e. a toy for adults). However, by 1955 the market shifted and the toy became a huge success with children. Added to bouncing, stretching, and molding, kids could spend hours using the putty to copy images from comics and then distort the images by bending and stretching.
In 1957, kids could watch Silly Putty T.V. commercials that were strategically placed during The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo.
From there, there was no end to the popularity of Silly Putty. Children continue to play with the simple gob of goo often referred to as the "toy with one moving part."
Did You Know...
- Did you know that astronauts on the 1968 Apollo 8 mission took Silly Putty with them to the moon?
- Did you know that the Smithsonian Institution included Silly Putty in its exhibit on the 1950s?
- Did you know that Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola, bought the rights to Silly Putty in 1977 (after Peter Hodgson passed away)?
- Did you know that you can no longer copy images onto Silly Putty from the comics because of the change in inking process?
- Did you know that people did finally discover numerous practical uses for Silly Putty, including as a balance for a wobbly piece of furniture, lint remover, hole stopper, and a stress reliever.
For some silly uses of Silly Putty, check out the winners to Silly Putty's "Top 50 Silliest Uses" contest.