Posted on Leave a comment

The history of Silly Putty – how a shortage of rubber in World War II and timely accident gave birth to one of the world’s most popular toys. (1950’s)

Comic book ad for Nutty Putty

Introduction to Silly Putty

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 Silly Putty

Silly Putty comic book ad with Batman

During 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.

In 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 nontoxic 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.

Peter Hodgson purchases the rights to “Silly Putty”

Silly Putty sponsors Pops - Peter Hodgson on left

Not content with rejection, James Wright and General Electric marketed the unusual substance around the country. Two years later it was discovered, 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 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 three hundred million eggs of Silly Putty had been sold and Hodgson’s $147 investment was worth $140 million. He was the owner of one of the most successful toys of the twentieth century.

Grown-ups find other uses for Silly Putty

Comic book ad - Silly Putty Start your own secret club with secret code

Oddly, Silly Putty was originally marketed to adults but switched its marketing target audience to 6-to-12-year old’s when it was noticed how much children enjoyed the gooey stuff.  Still, adults knew 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 and promoted.  Adults used it to stabilize wobbly furniture, cushion furniture against hard surfaces, and to stick pictures and drawings on the wall.

This multi-purpose product was 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.

The original Silly Putty formula gives it its magical characteristics

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.

The unusual characteristics of Silly Putty are what make it 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.

Silly Putty ads

Silly Putty song lyrics

You twist and turn, bounce it off the floor
It’s nothing like you’ve ever done
You shape it with your hands
Make a scary face, make a flower or a tub

My buddy Silly Putty, it’s doofy like a goo
My buddy Silly Putty, there’s nothing we cant’ do

Me and my buddy, Silly Putty
My buddy, Silly Putty…

Original Silly Putty commercial

Check out the original Silly Putty commercial below.

Image Credits

Comic book ad for Nutty Putty via Lucky Products with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Silly Putty comic book ad with Batman via Science History Institute with usage type - Public Domain
Silly Putty sponsors Pops - Peter Hodgson on left via with usage type - Public Domain

Featured Image Credit

Comic book ad for Nutty Putty via Lucky Products with usage type - Product photo (Fair Use)
Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *