This article is for quizzes on Wednesday April 29th... 

Silly Putty is a toy based on silicone polymers that have unusual physical properties. It bounces, but breaks when given a sharp blow and can also flow like a liquid.

During World War II, Japan invaded rubber-producing countries as they expanded their sphere of influence in the Pacific Rim. Rubber was vital for the production of rafts, tires, vehicle and aircraft parts, gas masks, and boots. In the U.S., all rubber products were rationed; citizens were encouraged to make their rubber products last until the end of the war and to donate spare tires, boots, and coats. Meanwhile, the government funded research into synthetic rubber compounds to attempt to solve this shortage.

Credit for the invention of Silly Putty is disputed and has been attributed variously to Earl Warrick, of the then newly formed Dow Corning; Harvey Chin; and James Wright, a Scottish inventor working for General Electric in New Haven, Connecticut. Throughout his life, Warrick insisted that he and his colleague, Rob Roy McGregor, received the patent for Silly Putty before Wright did; but Crayola's history of Silly Putty states that Wright first invented it in 1943. Both researchers independently discovered that reacting boric acid with silicone oil would produce a gooey, bouncy material with several unique properties. The non-toxic putty would bounce when dropped, could stretch farther than regular rubber, would not go moldy, and had a very high melting temperature.

Wright found that the substance did not have all the properties needed to replace rubber, so it was not used for any purpose. In 1945 Wright sent samples to scientists all around the world, but no practical use was ever found.

In 1949, the putty reached the owner of a toy store, Ruth Fallgatter. She contacted Peter Hodgson, a marketing consultant. The two decided to market the bouncing putty by selling it in a clear case. Although it sold well, Fallgatter did not pursue it further. However, Hodgson saw its potential.

Already $12,000 in debt, Hodgson borrowed $147 to buy a batch of the putty to pack 1 oz (28 g) portions into plastic eggs for $1, calling it Silly Putty. After selling over 250,000 eggs of silly putty in three days, Hodgson was almost put out of business in 1951 by the Korean War. Silicone, a main ingredient in silly putty, was put on ration, harming his business. A year later the restriction on silicone was lifted and the production of Silly Putty resumed. Initially, it was primarily targeted towards adults. However, by 1955 the majority of its customers were aged 6 to 12.

Peter Hodgson died in 1976. A year later, Binney & Smith, the makers of Crayola products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty. By 1987, annual Silly Putty sales exceeded two million eggs.

author profile image