03 Jun 2009

Origins: Silly Putty

by Karen Feridun

Popular Science’s January 1945 issue featured a brief article on silicone compounds that had recently been discovered by General Electric researchers. One was silicone rubber that found immediate use in the war effort when it was made into cushions for naval searchlights and gaskets for B29 Superfortress bombers. Because it is much stronger than ordinary rubber, the possibilities for its use in the post-war world seemed limitless. There was one silicone discovery, however, that left researchers scratching their heads.  “A use remains to be found for the most curious silicone product discovered, which has been nicknamed ‘bouncing putty’. The white substance can be pulled like taffy – but roll it into a sphere, and it bounces like rubber.”

Five short years later, Silly Putty was born, but how exactly it came about is still a matter of conjecture. Earl Warrick, one of Dow Corning’s first researchers, claimed that he and fellow researcher Rob Roy McGregor were the inventors. Another inventor, Harvey Chin is sometimes credited with the discovery. The folks at Crayola LLC, formerly Binney & Smith, who make Silly Putty these days contend that GE researcher James Wright discovered the bouncing putty back in 1943 when he combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube. The contents of the tube became polymerized. Wright removes the substance from the tube, the story goes, and “in his exuberance, tosses some on the floor. Bouncing putty is born.” That’s not how they tell it in Schenectady. Maybe it’s because Crayola’s history has Wright working in a lab in New Haven in their version, even though Schenectadians, who agree that Wright was the inventor, have long insisted that he was working in the GE lab in their own city. Chris Hunter is the curator of the Schenectady Museum where a recent exhibit featured what they called ‘the Silliest Invention’.  According to Hunter, the Schenectady version was verified through research and anecdotal accounts from people who remember Wright and remember neighborhood kids being given samples of the putty. That version says that Wright’s discovery came about because he mislabeled a chemical. Oh, and the substance accidentally landed on the floor. No New Haven, no exuberance. Both versions agree about what happened next, though. The substance was sent to engineers worldwide to see if they could find a use for it. They didn’t, but the putty did catch the eye of a toy store owner in… New Haven.

Finding no practical use for the bouncing putty, GE executives used it to entertain party guests. One guest was Ruth Fallgatter, owner of New Haven’s Block Shop toy store. She contacted Peter Hodgson, a marketing consultant who helped her produce her toy catalogs, to discuss the strange substance she’d seen at a party and, in 1949, the putty, encased in plastic, was featured in her catalog priced at two dollars. It was one of the top-selling items in the catalogue, second only to Crayola Crayons. Despite its success, Fallgatter decided to drop the putty from her catalogue. Hodgson saw an opportunity. He had been going through a rough patch and had accumulated a debt of $12,000. Nevertheless, he believed so strongly in the putty that he borrowed $147 to buy a bunch of the stuff GE still had on hand for which they had never found a use. He got students from Yale University to divide the putty into one ounce pieces and place them in plastic eggs. Hodgson thought that the name bouncing putty didn’t really convey what a fun product it was. By this time, it had been dubbed both Gupp and Nutty Putty, but Hodgson wasn’t satisfied. He came up with 15 names and considered them carefully before deciding on Silly Putty.

Hodgson debuted Silly Putty at New York’s International Toy Fair in 1950. The response was disappointing and Hodgson was even told to throw in the towel. Fortunately, he didn’t listen to that advice and eventually got Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores to carry Silly Putty. By March of that year, business was picking up so Hodgson created the Arnold-Clark company and set up operations in a barn in Connecticut. From the beginning, Hodgson had shipped Silly Putty eggs in egg cartons. When he began production in his new barn, the Connecticut Cooperative Poultry Association supplied him with their surplus cartons. Silly Putty’s big break was just around the corner, thanks to The New Yorker.

The August 26th issue of The New Yorker included an item about Silly Putty in its “Talk of the Town” section. Apparently the writer had picked up an egg during a stop at a Doubleday bookstore. In the article, Hodgson, who had envisioned his product as a novelty for grown-ups, is quoted as saying, “It means five minutes escape from neurosis.” The folks at Doubleday reported that it was the most terrific item it had handled since the popular romantic novel Forever Amber. Within three days of the issue’s publication, Hodgson received 250,000 orders. The rest is not history, however. For one thing, seven tons of Silly Putty later, the government restricted the use of silicone and other raw materials in response to the Korean War in 1951. Hodgson couldn’t produce more Silly Putty until 1952, but was able to stay in business by using up the 1,500 pounds he still had when the restrictions went into place. For another, Silly Putty had yet to break into the children’s toy market.

Just as Silly Putty started going the way of the Pet Rock and other classic, but short-lived novelties in the adult market, children started catching on to the product for its ability to transfer and distort images from the comics. By the mid-fifties, Silly Putty had found its place as a toy for children ages 6 to 12. In fact, it became one of the first products directly marketed to children in 1957 when Hodgson produced the first Silly Putty television commercial that aired on the Howdy Doody Show. Of course, the pliable putty never entirely left the adult market. It is still marketed as a stress reliever to adults and even managed to find its way to the moon when it was given to Apollo 8 astronauts to help them cope with stress. They found another use for it in their weightless cabin, sticking tools to it to hold them down. In fact, many uses have been found for the putty that eluded all those scientists in its earliest days (although it is said that the package once bore the warning, “Do not use as earplugs”).

The New England Patriots use Silly Putty to exercise their hands, as do many athletes. Denver-based artist Lori Kanary made a statement on plastic surgery by using Silly Putty as the tiny canvasses on which she put monoprint portraits of patients. In 1981, the Columbus Zoo made handprints and footprints of gorillas with it. Science teachers and their elementary school students conduct classroom experiments with it because of its unusual properties. Some folks use it to clean keyboards or stabilize wobbly tables. Some use the Glow in the Dark variety to mark light switches and snooze alarms. As part of the product’s 50th anniversary celebration, Crayola held a “Silliest Uses for Silly Putty” contest and published the top 50 on their website. The responses ranged from the practical – use it to hold the dog’s bowl in place – to the ridiculous – stick it on your neck to fake a swollen gland to get out of a date in a hurry. One of the more ingenious uses came from the person whose truck had been broken into and used it to lift a print that led police to capturing the thief. Surely the person who said she uses it to make copies when she doesn’t have quarters for the copy machine recalls copying the comics as a child. Unfortunately, that is a thing of the past, not because Silly Putty has changed, but because inks have. Only black ink transfers well these days.

Indeed, Silly Putty is the same non-Newtonian fluid it always was, or, as its makers have billed it, The Real Solid Liquid. Roll it into a ball, it bounces. Put the ball on a table and gravity will start to flatten it. Flatten it the rest of the way with your hands, then roll it into a ball again and try flattening it with a hammer. It won’t change its shape at all. Make a big ball out of it and drop it off a roof. It’ll bounce once and shatter. The main ingredient in making all of that possible is dimethylsiloxane. Last year, fast food fans were disturbed to discover that dimethylsiloxane is also an ingredient of McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets. It’s used to keep the oil the McNuggets are cooked in from becoming too foamy. It’s also used in cosmetics, which didn’t make McNuggets fans any happier. The World Health Organization (WHO) reports finding no adverse effects from using dimethylsiloxane as a food additive and, in fact, it’s used in many foods. According to the website Foodadditive.com, some of those foods include “dairy fat blends, chewing gum, vinegar, soups, jellies, beer and malt beverages, fermented fruit products, powdered milk, imitation chocolate, water based flavored drinks (sports, energy or electrolyte drinks), pre-cooked pastas and more”. The full list is available on the WHO’s Codex Alimentarius website.

By the way, do-it-yourselfers have figured out how to make their own Silly Putty with common household ingredients. There are several recipes, some use borax, others use liquid starch, and still others use eggs, but the common ingredient in all of the recipes is Elmer's All-Purpose white glue (the jury's out on whether their school glue can be used).

Peter Hodgson left a fortune of $140 million when he passed away. He made all of it from Silly Putty. He and Vice Presidents, William Haynes and Macgregor Kilpatrick, ran the business together from the beginning until Haynes and Hodgson died a month apart in 1976. The following year Crayola acquired the rights to Silly Putty and have been making it ever since in Easton, Pennsylvania. Crayola, once Binney and Smith, is now a Hallmark subsidiary. Today, Silly Putty is available in a number of varieties, including one called Changeable that changes colors when held, the putty equivalent of a mood ring. A marketing study in 1990 found that 97% of American households recognized the name Silly Putty, while 70% of households had purchased it at some time. In February, Time Magazine included it in its list of the all-time hundred greatest toys and the Smithsonian put it in an exhibit of 1950s products that shaped the culture. Not bad for a lab accident and $147 investment.

Next time, Coke.


Wikipedia entry for Silly Putty

Wayne Schmidt's Silly Putty Page

Encyclopedia.com entry for Silly Putty

Timeless toys: classic toys and the playmakers who created them, Tim Walsh, Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2005, 298 pp.

All-TIME 100 Greatest Toys, Allie Townsend

The Wonderful History of America's Favorite Stretchy Compound, Spencer Tweedy.com, November 17, 2008

A Silly Failure that Became an Iconic American Product, Symon Sez.com


Here is Putty with a Bounce, Popular Science, January 1945, p. 97 (from Modern Mechanix’ website)

The Silly Putty Story, Silly Putty company website

Silly Putty History, Crayola Creativity Central, Crayola company website

The Schenectady Silly Putty Mystery, by Liz Clancy Lerner, All Over Albany, February 24, 2011

Things People Said: Warning Labels, Rinkworks.com

Here to Stay (The Talk of the Town), Marion Miller, Brendan Gill, and Harrison Kinney, The New Yorker, August 26, 1950

Classic Toys: Silly Putty, Retro Planet.com

Silly Putty - Early History - This is What I Know, Carol Haynes, January 13, 2011

What is Silly Putty?, Wisegeek.com

Silly Putty Information, Jerry White, So You Wanna.com

Who created silly putty?, Answers.com

Toys and Games - Hall of Fame, Factacular.com

What Are Some Practical & Impractical Uses for Silly Putty, Mackenzie Wright, eHow.com

Science Activities with Silly Putty for Kindergarted to 3rd Grade, Jennifer Spirko, eHow.com

Lori Kanary reproduced plastic surgery -- with Silly Putty, Jef Otte, Denver Westword Blogs, August 5, 2010 

Make Silly Putty, Wikihow.com

WTFood: McNuggets have a little too much in common with Silly Putty, Ashley Brayn, Grist, July 7, 2010

Foodditive.com entry for Dimethlypolysiloxane

Codex Alimentarius entry for Polydimethylsiloxane