The History of Silly Putty

Silly Putty
 By University of the Fraser Valley ( [CC BY 2.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

The plastic putty known as Silly Putty® has been entertaining youngsters and providing them with innovative playtime since the 1940s. It's had an interesting history since then. 

The Origins of Silly Putty®

James Wright, an engineer, discovered Silly Putty®. Just as with many awesome inventions, the discovery happened by accident. 

Wright was working for the U.S. War Production Board at the time. He was charged with finding a substitute for synthetic rubber that wouldn’t cost the government an arm and a leg to produce. He mixed silicone oil with boric acid and found that the compound acted very much like rubber. It could rebound almost 25 percent higher than a normal rubber ball, and it was impervious to rot. Soft and malleable, it could stretch to many times its original length without tearing. Another of Silly Putty’s® unique qualities was its ability to copy the image of any printed material it was pressed upon.

Wright initially called his discovery “Nutty Putty.” The material was sold under the trade name Silly Putty® in 1949 and it sold faster than any other toy in history, registering over $6 million in sales in the first year. 

The Government Wasn’t Impressed

Wright’s amazing Silly Putty® never found a home with the U.S. government as a substitute for synthetic rubber. The government said it wasn’t a superior product. Tell that to millions of kids pressing globs of the stuff onto comic pages, lifting images of their favorite action heroes.

Marketing consultant Peter Hodgson didn’t agree with the government, either. Hodgson bought the production rights to Wright's "bouncing putty" and is credited with changing the name of Nutty Putty to Silly Putty®, introducing it to the public at Easter, selling it inside plastic eggs.

Silly Putty’s® Practical Uses

Silly Putty® wasn’t initially marketed as a toy. In fact, it pretty much bombed at the 1950 International Toy Fair. Hodgson first intended Silly Putty® for an adult audience, billing it for its practical purposes. But despite its ignoble beginnings, Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday decided to go ahead and sell Silly Putty® as a toy and it began to take off. When the New Yorker mentioned the stuff, sales bloomed – more than a quarter million orders were received within three days.

Hodgson then reached his adult audience almost by accident. Parents soon discovered that not only could Silly Putty® lift perfect images off comic pages, but it was pretty handy for pulling lint off of fabric as well. It went to space with the Apollo 8 crew in 1968, where it proved effective at keeping objects in place in zero gravity.

Binney & Smith, Inc., creator of Crayola, purchased Silly Putty® after Hodgson’s death. The company claims that more than 300 million Silly Putty® eggs have sold since 1950.

The Composition of Silly Putty

Although you probably don’t want to go to the trouble of whipping up a batch at home when you can simply buy some, the basic ingredients of Silly Putty® include:

  • Dimethyl Siloxane: 65 percent
  • Silica: 17 percent
  • Thixotrol ST: 9 percent
  • Polydimethylsiloxane: 4 percent
  • Decamethylcyclopentasiloxane: 1 percent 
  • Glycerine: 1 percent
  • Titanium Dioxide: 1 percent

It’s a safe guess that Binney & Smith aren’t divulging all their proprietary secrets, including the introduction of a wide array of Silly Putty® colors, some that even glow in the dark.

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Your Citation
Bellis, Mary. "The History of Silly Putty." ThoughtCo, Apr. 5, 2023, Bellis, Mary. (2023, April 5). The History of Silly Putty. Retrieved from Bellis, Mary. "The History of Silly Putty." ThoughtCo. (accessed May 29, 2023).