Gob of Goo
March 6, 1950: Silly Putty Introduced to the Public
Silly Putty, one of the most popular toys of the 20th century was invented accidentally by James Wright back in the ‘50’s. During World War II rubber was essential to keep the war effort going. Tires for trucks and jeeps, boots, gas masks, life rafts and lots more. The Japanese routed the rubber producing countries of Asia drastically affecting the supply route. Americans were asked to conserve rubber and donate rubber products; old tires, raincoats, boots, anything consisting of rubber.
Enter engineer James Wright who was attempting to discover a synthetic rubber while working in General Electric’s laboratory in New Haven, Conn. While working on the problem of synthetic rubber he discovered something unusual in a test tube. Wright had combined boric acid and silicone oil, producing an interesting gob of goo.
Wright discovered it would bounce when dropped, stretch farther than regular rubber, didn’t collect mold, and had a very high melting temperature. Unfortunately it didn’t contain the properties needed to replace rubber. Still, Wright thought there had to be some practical use for the interesting putty.
The polymers in silly putty have covalent bonds within the molecules, but hydrogen bonds between the molecules. The hydrogen bonds are easily broken. When small amounts of stress are slowly applied to the putty, only a few bonds are broken and the putty “flows”. When larger amounts of stress are applied quickly, there are many hydrogen bonds that break, causing the putty to break or tear.
The “Nutty Putty” began being passed around to family and friends, taken to parties and dropped, stretched and molded. In 1949 the goo found its way to Ruth Fallgatter, owner of a toy store who produced a catalogue of toys. Peter Hodgson, an advertising consultant convinced her to add the bouncing putty to her catalogue. It sold for $2.00 and outsold everything except a set of 50 cent Crayola crayons. For some reason, after a year of strong sales, she dropped the bouncing goo.
Hodgson saw an opportunity and even though he was $12,000 in debt (a lot for those times) he borrowed another $147.00, bought a huge quantity of the putty in 1950 and had Yale students separate it into one once balls and put them in red plastic eggs. After much contemplation and numerous options suggested, he decided to name the goo “Silly Putty” and sell each egg for $1.
Hodgson took his Silly Putty to the international Toy Fair in New York but no one saw the potential. Luckily he got Nieman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores to stock the putty. It wasn’t until a few months later that a reporter for “The New Yorker” stumbled across Silly Putty and was fascinated by the goofy goo. He wrote an article about Silly Putty in his, “Talk of the Town” section in the August 26, 1950 edition. Orders immediately began pouring in.
The Toy with one Moving Part
By 1955 Silly Putty, marketed as “The Real Solid Liquid” shifted from being a novelty item to a kids toy and became a huge success. In 1957, kids could watch Silly Putty T.V. commercials that were strategically placed during The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo. Children continue to play with the simple gob of goo often referred to as the “toy with one moving part.”
Did you know…
…that astronauts on the 1968 Apollo 8 mission took Silly Putty with them to the moon?
…that the Smithsonian Institution included Silly Putty in its exhibit on the 1950s?
…Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola, bought the rights to Silly Putty in 1977 (after Peter Hodgson passed away)?
…that, aw, you can no longer copy images onto Silly Putty from the comics because of the change in inking process.
…that people did finally discover numerous practical uses for Silly Putty, including use as a balance for a wobbly piece of furniture, a lint remover, hole stopper, and a stress reliever.
…that Americans buy more than two million eggs of Silly Putty every year.
Make your own Silly Putty
- Mix two parts white glue with one part liquid starch. The liquid starch (e.g. Sta-Flo) should be concentrated and can usually be found in the laundry section. Some brands will work better than others (Niagara has tested poorly).
- If you use Elmer’s school glue instead of regular white school glue, the putty won’t bounce. However, Elmer’s all-purpose glue will work.
- If you’d like, add food coloring in at this stage. Be generous – the color will disburse and lighten up significantly.
- Stir until desired consistency is reached. If you need to, adjust the proportions until it feels like commercial Silly Putty.
- When it’s mostly formed, take it out of the bowl and shape it with your hands. It may need to be worked with a bit to achieve the best results. Roll it around, stretch it apart, and contort it to get it going.
- Place in a clear, plastic, resealable container when you’re finished using it. To keep it for later, your putty needs to stay away from air. It will also keep for a longer period of time if kept in the refrigerator. Alternatively, keep it in a resealable plastic bag. Just make sure it’s sealed up all the way!