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Silly Putty has been marketed under many names since it was invented – Thinking Putty, Bouncing Putty, Tricky Putty, Nutty Putty, and even Potty Putty. It rose to prominence in the 1950’s and became one of the most successful toys of the twentieth century. Its wartime discovery was pure accident.

The accidental invention of a classic toy

Silly PuttyDuring World War II, the United States experienced a shortage of rubber. Rubber was vital in the production of tires, vehicle and aircraft parts, gas masks, and boots, and became in short supply after Japanese raided several rubber producing countries. The United States government encouraged its citizens to conserve and reuse rubber products until the end of the war or to donate unusable rubber products to the government. In addition, in an effort to find a suitable replacement for synthetic (man-made) rubber, the U.S. government contracted General Electric’s New Haven, Connecticut Labs to find a substitute rubber-like product that would meet all the needs traditional rubber provided.

Silly Putty in packagesIn 1943, James Wright, a member of the GE research team, was trying various compounds when he accidentally dropped boric acid into silicon oil. He was surprised to discover that the resultant goo was non toxic and stretched further and bounced higher than synthetic rubber, even at extreme temperatures. He also discovered that when applied to newspaper, it lifted the print right off. He called it “nutty putty” and presented his exciting discovery to his supervisors.

General Electric and the U.S. War Production Board examined the putty but felt it provided no measurable advantage over synthetic rubber that was already in use. Still, the unusual material with a variety of odd characteristics, was a favorite around the lab.

Hodgson makes a mint

Silly putty eggsTwo years later, in 1949, a batch of Nutty Putty was taken by a salesman to a Dow Corning Corporation party where Peter Hodgson noticed it was a crowd favorite. Seeing the potential in the product, Hodgson, who was already $12,000 in debt, borrowed $147 and purchased the production rights from General Electric. He named it “Silly Putty”. Since it was close to Easter, he packaged 1oz of the coral colored product in small, plastic eggs and sold the first batch of products for $1 apiece.

After selling over 250,000 eggs of Silly Putty in three days, Hodgson knew he had a likely smash hit on his hands. His excitement quickly crumbled a year later when the Korean War began and silicon, the main ingredient in Silly Putty, was put on ration. Unable to manufacture the product, Hodgson patiently waited until 1952 when the ration was lifted. Production resumed and by 1957, Hodgson promoted the new toy on an episode of Howdy Doody which quickly re-ignited the excitement over the product.

Thirty years later, more than 300 millions eggs of Silly Putty had been sold and Hodgson’s $147 investment was worth $140 million. He was the owner of one of most successful toys of the twentieth century.

Other uses for Silly Putty

Silly putty advertisementSilly Putty was originally marketed to adults but quickly switched its marketing target audience to 6 to 12 year olds.  Silly Putty has many other uses besides entertainment and fun for kids. Only after it was marketed as a toy was its ability to pick up pet hair discovered (probably by a parent) and promoted.  It was commonly used by adults to stabilize wobbly furniture and to stick pictures and drawings on the wall.

Silly Putty has been repurposed and sold under various brand names too.  For instance, it can be used as a hand strength conditioner (under the name Power Putty) and as an art medium (Art Putty).  It has also been used in stress reduction therapy and in medical and scientific experimentation. Silly Putty’s adhesive characteristics allowed the crew of Apollo 8 to use Silly Putty to secure their tools in zero gravity meaning Silly Putty is one of the few toys to reach the moon.

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How it works

Silly putty transferring inkThe unusual characteristics of Silly Putty are what make is so interesting and fun for kids. When rolled up into a ball, the material retains its shape and bounces. Given enough time, it will also flow like a liquid. If you pull it apart, it will tear. It also exhibits adhesive properties and can be sticky (if you get it in your hair, Crayola recommends using alcohol, which breaks silly putty down, to remove it). Hydrogen bonds between its molecules are the key to its unique properties. When large amounts of pressure are applied to silly putty, only a few of the hydrogen bonds are broken and the putty “flows”. When larger amounts or pressure are applied, more of the covalent hydrogen bonds break and the material tears.

The original coral-colored Silly Putty is composed of 65% dimethyl siloxane (hydroxy-terminated polymers with boric acid), 17% silica (crystalline quartz), 9% Thixatrol ST (castor oil derivative), 4% polydimethylsiloxane, 1% decamethyl cyclopentasiloxane, 1% glycerine, and 1% titanium dioxide.

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