Science Becomes a Toy - Silly Putty

by Felice Prager

If you ask a child or an adult about Silly Putty®, the odds are that sometime in the person’s life, Silly Putty® was a possession. Adults may remember the early commercials they saw on TV when TV was black and white and the world was much simpler.
 
Everyone will have their favorite thing about the product: it bounces, it stretches, it snaps when you break it, it can copy pictures from newspapers and comic books, it doesn’t make a mess, it comes out of hair, the eggs are cool, it doesn’t stick to carpeting, it is made to glow in the dark so I can play with it in bed!

I cannot remember a world without Silly Putty®. It’s almost as if when it was born, so was I. I remember fighting with a cousin over whose egg was whose, especially because one had more Silly Putty® in it than the other. I have given it as a prize for my students.
 
No one ever complained, no matter what age my student was. In fact, “Oh, cool! Silly Putty®!” was a common reaction. Even when my husband cut through a tendon in his hand while foolishly playing with sharp things which are not toys, and the doctor gave him a large ball of Silly Putty® to use as a means of exercising his hand so he wouldn’t lose the use of it, his reaction was, “Oh, cool! Silly Putty®!”

Silly Putty® has been around for more than 50 years. From its origins in a scientist's laboratory in 1943 and its introduction to the world in 1950, Silly Putty® is an American classic that has not lost its popularity.

When, during World War II, the Japanese continued to invade rubber-producing countries in the Far East, hampering US production of items like tires and boots, our government’s War Production Board requested from industry a way to produce synthetic rubber.
 
James Wright, a Scottish engineer working for General Electric at the time in New Haven, Connecticut, combined boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube. Excited by the discovery of his synthetic gooey substance and hopeful that it would work as a rubber substitute, he threw it in the air and it bounced when it hit the floor. Unfortunately, engineers could find no practical use for this putty.

Ruth Fallgatter, the owner of a toy store, together with Peter Hodgson, producer of her toy catalog, saw it in another way when they viewed it at an exhibit.
 
They decided to market the product in clear plastic tubes for $2 in a toy catalog. It was outsold only by a box of hexagonal crayons from Crayola® that sold for 50 cents. Fallgatter decided, despite its success, to go no further with the product, but Hodgson saw potential in it.

Already in debt, Hodgson borrowed more money, packaged the gooey rubber in eggs, and showed it at the International Toy Fair in New York in 1950 as Silly Putty®. Marketers saw no potential for the product; however, Hodgson convinced Neiman Marcus and Doubleday to put it in their larger stores.
 
Hodgson set up a factory and packaged the eggs filled with Silly Putty® in surplus egg cartons. Little did he know what one article might do to the product’s success.

A writer discovered the product at a Doubleday store, wrote an article about it, and from their Hodgson received orders from across the country for a quarter million eggs – in THREE DAYS!

Despite a temporary restriction on the use of silicone during the Korean War, when the restriction was lifted, Silly Putty® production took off. By 1955, it was a child plaything for kids from ages 6-12.

Hodgson was one of the first to use TV to market his product to children, airing commercials on Captain Kangaroo and Howdy Doody. In the Sixties, the product gained popularity in Europe and Asia. Silly Putty® even went to the moon with the Apollo 8 astronauts in sterling silver eggs.
 
When Peter Hodgson died in 1976, he left an estate worth $140 million. Ironically, in 1977, Binney and Smith, maker of Crayola® products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty®.

By 1987, two million eggs of Silly Putty® were being produced. In the mid-1990’s, production of Silly Putty® in different colors was begun. In the year 2000, gold Silly Putty® was created to celebrate 50 years of production and Silly Putty® was put on display at the Smithsonian Institute in Washington, D.C., as part of an exhibit celebrating 1950’s objects that shaped American Culture. http://www.sillyputty.com/history_101/history101.htm

According to http://www.chem.umn.edu/outreach/Sillyputty.html, this is how simply Silly Putty® can be made at home: Combine a 55% Elmer’s glue solution in water with 16% sodium borate (in a 4:1 ratio.) Many hands-on chemistry programs teach children how to make their own Silly Putty® this way as an introduction to chemistry.
 
The actual formula for this product is:

65% - Dimethyl Siloxane
17% - Silica
9% - Thixotrol ST
4% - Polydimethylsiloxane
1% - Decamethyl cyclopentasiloxane
1% - Glycerine
1% - Titanium Dioxide

Besides being used as a toy, it is now marketed as a stress reliever for adults. It is also used for people who have degenerative hand and wrist diseases as a form of rehabilitation. Mostly, Silly Putty® is a great toy created in the 1950’s which has continued being successful. Who knows? It may be the rubber of the future, and we have only seen it as a toy all these years.
 

 

Silly Putty



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