Thursday, August 25, 2011

The History Of Silly Putty

The history of Silly Putty goes back to 1940 after the Japanese invaded the rubber-producing countries of the Far East and cut off the supply to the United States. With the subsequent hampering of war production, especially for tires, gas masks, rafts and boots, the government asked American industry to develop a synthetic rubber. 

Here's where the story gets controversial, for there was more than one person who claimed the discovery of Silly Putty.  Researchers for Dow Corning  Company and  General Electric Company both claimed discovery. The present manufacturer of Silly Putty, Crayola LLC, gives the credit to James Wright, a Scottish inventor that worked for General Electric in New Haven Connecticut in 1943.

The first Silly Putty was the result of the mixing of boric acid and silicone oil.  Wright found that the material would stretch if slowly pulled, but break if pulled rapidly. Rolled into a ball it would bounce, would not mold and had a high melting point. Despite these properties, Wright determined the substance was not suited for use as a rubber substitute and he sent samples to other scientists that came to the same conclusion.

The story goes that some of the substance was obtained by an owner of a toy store, Ruth Fallgatter.  She hired a marketing consultant, Peter Hodgson to market the bouncing putty and put it in here catalog. It out sold everything else in the catalog except for Crayola crayons, but Fallgetter did not continue to sell it. Hodgson saw its potential, and bought $147 worth of the substance. He named it Silly Putty, packed 1 ounce portions in plastic eggs that sold for a dollar each, and sold 250,000 of them in three days.  But the new business almost went under in 1951 with the start of the Korean War, as silicone, a primary ingredient of Silly Putty, was rationed.

After the war, production resumed. It was originally marketed as an adult item, but by 1955 children became the primary customers. The first advertisement for Silly Putty was produced by Hodgson in 1957 and premiered on The Howdy Doody Show.

In1961 Silly Putty went world wide and became a hit in Europe and The Soviet Union.  By the time Hodgson  died in 1976, over 300 million eggs of Silly Putty had been sold and his business was worth $140 million, making it one of the most successful toys of the 20th Century.  The following year Binney and Smith, the makers of Crayola crayons, bought the rights to it.  By 1987, production of Silly Putty was in excess of 2 million eggs annually. So while the name may be 'silly', the profits generated by this toy that was created by accident certainly aren't!

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