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What is Silly Putty?

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  • Written By: A. B. Kelsey
  • Edited By: O. Wallace
  • Last Modified Date: 23 November 2014
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Silly Putty, one of the classic toys of modern times, was actually invented by accident. As a military tactic during the early years of World War II, the Japanese invaded countries that produced rubber to stop the production of tires, rafts, gas masks, boots, vehicles and aircraft parts for the military. The US government encouraged American companies to invent a synthetic substance that had similar properties to rubber but could be made with non-restricted materials.

In 1943, James Wright, a chemist at General Electric (GE) combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube and created a fascinating gob of goo. This stretchy material didn’t decay and bounced even higher than rubber. It could also flow in slow motion, but would break into little pieces when he struck it sharply. The goo also copied any print that it touched. General Electric shared the putty with other chemists around the globe only to find that nobody could think of a practical use for the putty.

Although it wasn’t really practical, the substance was entertaining. The "nutty putty," as it was commonly called, was passed around from person to person to be dropped, stretched, and molded. The putty may have been doomed to remain a local curiosity if it hadn’t reached the hands of Ruth Fallgatter, the owner of the Block Shop Toy Store.

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In 1949, Ruth Fallgatter asked Peter Hodgson, an unemployed marketing consultant, to produce her new toy catalog. They decided to place the fun putty in a clear case and sell it for $2 United States Dollars (USD) each. The putty was one of the top sellers, but despite the small fortune it made her, Fallgatter decided not to include the item in her next catalog.

But Peter Hodgson saw the putty’s potential as a novelty item. He borrowed some money, bought the rights from GE, and hired college students to separate the putty into small blobs and put them inside plastic eggs. Since “bouncing putty” didn’t fully describe the goofy goo’s unusual and entertaining qualities, Hodgson decided to name it “Silly Putty."

In 1950, Hodgson pitched his product at the International Toy Fair in New York where he got Silly Putty stocked at both Nieman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores. Luckily for Hodgson, a reporter for The New Yorker stumbled across Silly Putty that summer. Fascinated with the novelty, the writer raved about the product in the "Talk of the Town" and over 250,000 orders were placed for Silly Putty over the following three days.

Although Silly Putty was originally a novelty item for adults, the market had shifted by 1955 and the toy became a hit with children. Not only could kids bounce, stretch, and mold Silly Putty, but they could also copy images from comics and then distort, bend, and stretch them. By 1957, children were viewing Silly Putty television commercials during The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo.

It was only after its success as a toy that practical uses for Silly Putty were finally found. The material's unique properties have found niche use in medical and scientific applications. Physical therapists like the putty for rehabilitative therapy of hand injuries, and patients with ADD and ADHD handle Silly Putty to reduce stress and relieve tension. Silly Putty can even be used in the home to stop up holes, clean keyboard keys, and pick up dirt, lint, and pet hair. Astronauts even used it aboard Apollo 8 on their mission to the moon to secure tools in zero-gravity.

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anon60016
Post 2

I'm doing a history day project and your site was very helpful. thank you.

jojolnjooper
Post 1

wow. and i thought it was just fun goo! and i didn't even know it was so old, like, 1943.

whoa.

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