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How Was Silly Putty Invented?

Silly Putty's invention was a happy accident during World War II, as scientists aimed to create a rubber substitute. James Wright, a General Electric engineer, mixed boric acid with silicone oil, resulting in a unique, bouncy substance. Its potential as a toy was realized later. Intrigued? Discover how this serendipitous discovery evolved into a childhood staple.

It stretches, sticks, can be a toy or a tool, and it's still popular after more than half a century. Yet despite its remarkable versatility, Silly Putty was a complete accident that came about during a terrible time.

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During World War II, a GE engineer came up with Silly Putty while trying to create a synthetic rubber alternative.
During World War II, a GE engineer came up with Silly Putty while trying to create a synthetic rubber alternative.

The gooey stuff that comes in an egg-shaped container was born in a General Electric lab in New Haven, Connecticut, where inventors were trying to come up with a rubber substitute for use in World War II. The Japanese had taken control of most rubber-producing nations, and the United States was forced to ration rubber products because the material was needed for everything from military boots and gas masks to aircraft and vehicles.

Working in the lab, engineer James Wright mixed silicone oil and boric acid, and assumed that the "bouncing putty" he accidentally created would never have a use. Four years after the war, however, ad agency owner Peter Hodgson happened upon the stuff at a cocktail party and saw its potential. He eventually patented it under the name "Silly Putty," and the rest is a long stretch of history.

Not so silly:

  • Peter Hodgson sold Silly Putty in eggs because it was first marketed around Easter.

  • Another conflict – the Korean War – halted the production of Silly Putty because restrictions were placed on silicone.

  • Silly Putty used to be great for sticking to images on newspapers and making copies; these days, newspapers use nontransferable ink.

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Discussion Comments

Oxo

How can another, an outsider patent anything which is known before by the original discovering company? Please explain.

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    • During World War II, a GE engineer came up with Silly Putty while trying to create a synthetic rubber alternative.
      During World War II, a GE engineer came up with Silly Putty while trying to create a synthetic rubber alternative.