Who Made That Thing?

Process patent, from http://www.google.com/patents/US2541851
From Google Patents

Time for the second installment of “Who Made That Thing?”! Aren’t you excited? This time we are going to leave the world of office supplies and talk about a beloved childhood toy . . . silly putty!

Silly putty was invented accidentally in 1943 by General Electric engineer James Wright. Wright, working for the U.S. War Production Board, was attempting to create an affordable substance similar to rubber because World War II limited the supply of natural rubber from Asia.

The weird addictive putty was the result of mixing boric acid with silicone oil. It wasn’t a very good rubber substitute, but turned out to be super bouncy, super stretchy, and able to transfer an image off of a page.* Wright sent samples of his “Nutty Putty” out to colleagues and scientists, but no one could come up with a practical use and it went unnoticed for several years.

In 1949, Wright’s putty came to the attention of toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter and marketing consultant Peter Hodgson. Hodgson purchased the rights and began marketing the product as a toy, initially called “Bouncy Putty” then finally “Silly Putty.” He hired students from Yale to package his initial batch in colorful eggs and sold them for $1. Why eggs? Because it was Easter time, of course.

Yale students packaging Silly Putty, GE Adventures Ahead, 1951. From Science 2.0.
Yale students packaging Silly Putty, GE Adventures Ahead, 1951. From Science 2.0.

Hodgson proved to be a marketing whiz and moved his product out of the hands of adults (as a novelty) and into the hands of kids (as a full-blown toy). He even created an ad campaign which is credited as being one of the first commercials geared towards children. Sales quickly took off making it one of the most popular toys of all time and raising Hodgson’s wealth to $140 million at the time of his death in 1976 (and that’s 1970s money, people!).

After Hodgson’s death, Silly Putty was purchased by Binney & Smith, of Crayola family. Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2001.

National Toy Hall of Fame
Today I Found Out
Science 2.0
Mental Floss

*Did you know it can’t do this anymore as modern newspapers are made with nontransferable ink? I didn’t.


Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: