What an inert, innocent appearance for such a versatile toy. Silly Putty would just sit there like a lump—literally—until you deigned to pick it up. But then, oh then…it came alive. Well, not really; there was a fair amount of elbow grease involved in getting enjoyment out of the Putty. It bounced; it flowed (if given enough time); it stuck to the wall; it stuck to newsprint and comic books and copied whatever was on the page; it even picked up pet hair and dust, should the average 8-year old feel a sudden urge to clean the living room. It could be kneaded and bent, stretched and flattened. And it owed its existence to an accident.
In the 1940s, a Connecticut engineer named James Wright was trying to synthesize a cheap alternative to rubber, which was scarce during to the war. The combination of boric acid and silicone oil produced some proto-Putty that had rubber-like qualities but Wright’s bosses (General Electric) weren’t thrilled, probably because they had no comic books at hand in the boardroom. In 1949, Peter Hodgson—an unemployed ad man—stumbled upon Silly Putty (or nutty putty, as it was known then) and fell in marketing love. He bought the rights from GE, packaged one-ounce portions of Silly Putty inside plastic eggs and made a fortune. Sales were helped by the product’s appearance in The New Yorker magazine. See? Versatile.
After Silly Putty was marketed as a toy, the world began to discover all sorts of functions for the stretchy goo. Applications ranged from cleaning to stress relief to scientific simulations . However, its proudest moment came in 1968 when the Apollo 8 astronauts took Silly Putty along on their lunar orbit jaunt; they used the polymer to secure tools in zero gravity. Again, so versatile.
Silly Putty is now available in glow-in-the-dark colors, heat sensitive colors, black magnetic color and just regular colors, though the original is still the best; After all, it has been to space.
If you spent hours copying comics with your trusty lump of Silly Putty, and even more hours trying to get it unstuck from mom’s shag carpeting, we welcome your memories of this iconic toy in our comments section.