A Serious Ode To Silly Putty

Photo credit: Rick Madonik - Getty Images
Photo credit: Rick Madonik - Getty Images

From Popular Mechanics

Silly Putty: the rubbery stuff that started the revolution in play putty. Millions of gobs of it have been sold since the 1950s, and it shows no signs of stopping.

What would childhood be without this strange stuff? It stretches like taffy, tears like a piece of clay, can be molded into a surprisingly energetic ball, and can copy an image off a printed page. And it's a steal: Adjusted for inflation, Silly Putty costs a fraction of its 1950s price (it cost one dollar back then).

The story of Silly Putty's provenance is one of happy accidents-and the power of knowing a good thing when you see it. During the dark days of WWII, General Electric chemists were searching for a synthetic rubber to make up for shortages caused by Japan marauding in the Pacific Rim. The scientists who reacted silicone with boric acid created the first nascent version of the iconic stuff, but they had no idea a potential money-maker was in their hands. They only knew it wouldn’t work as a rubber substitute.

Along came marketing genius Peter Calvert Leary Hodgson, Sr., who saw the putty in action at a cocktail party. The rest is putty history. Hodgson, seeing the goofy and creative potential in this strange material, bought the rights to the formula from GE. If you want to read a wild overnight success story, read Hodgson's 1976 New York Times obituary about how Silly Putty took them man from struggling marketing-advertising guy to millionaire. Here he is in a charmingly antiquated early TV spot:

Of course, there's a scientific explanation for the marvel behind this marvelous material: Silly Putty is a non-Newtonian fluid. Such materials have molecular properties that cause them to flow like a liquid when a slow and gentle force is applied, but not when the force is strong and sudden.

That's why a small bit of Silly Putty is malleable in your hands, but a 100-lb ball of the stuff dropped off the top of a building shatters like glass, as seen in this experiment from North Carolina State University.

You can see why the original packaging called this stuff "The Real Solid Liquid."

Crayola acquired the rights to Silly Putty in 1977. In 2001, the product was inducted into the National To Hall of Fame in 2001. As the decades roll on, nothing seems capable of dimming our appreciation for Silly Putty. As it continues to entertain generations of kids, its once-in-a-lifetime business success story is studied by educators, scientists, and even economists:

Silly Putty may be silly. But it’s made the world a better, stranger, more magical place.

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