Who Made That Thing?

Who Made That Thing?

Process patent, from
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.

Who Made That Thing?

Welcome to the first installment of a new monthly – at least until I get tired of it – feature called “Who Made That Thing?” These posts will pop up on the second Wednesday to tell you the short history of some random object, concept, or process. Yes, I’m a nerd. You should really know this by now.

I’ll be concentrating on the kind of random things that might make you say “neat” and win you a game a trivia next time you go down the pub. Feel free to leave suggestions for next month’s post. This should be fun.

Today we are going to talk about a ubiquitous little item found in office drawers and filing cabinets . . . the binder clip!

US Patent US1865453 A (from

This is actually an American invention. Louis E. Baltzley (1895-1946), a native of Washington DC, created the versatile clip in 1911 and received his patent in 1915. Turns out Baltzley was from a family of inventors – his grandfather Elias Howe was a pioneer in the sewing machine world (maybe we’ll talk about him another time) and was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004. Did you know we had one of those?

A quick search of Google’s patent site shows Baltzley family members responsible for a culinary beater, a traveling stairway (an early escalator, ya’ll!), more small paper clip like items, a sound-absorbing device to make your typewriter quieter, a ping pong racket, an adjustable wrench, a typewriter cabinet . . . etc. (and those are just the ones I know for sure are the same family!).

But back to our friendly binder clip. You might not realize what an important invention this little guy is. Prior to Baltzley’s invention, the most common way of holding together a group of documents too large for a traditional paperclip was punching holes and tying the whole thing together (basically a very loose take on traditional binding). This was cumbersome and made adding or removing pages difficult. Think about the last time you used a binder clip (if you are an adult, I’m sure you have). Now imagine having to tie those papers together. Clumsy and time-consuming, right?

Several sources say Baltzley’s clip was inspired by watching his father struggle with stacks of paper around his office. As someone who works with stacks of papers for a living, I commend his creativity!

Main sources:
Patent US1865453 A, accessed at
“A Big Clip Job? Think Washington” by Linda Hales, The Washington Post