Weird Science: The Accidental Invention of Silly Putty

by Kids Discover


Silly Putty was invented by accident. During World War II, engineer James Wright was working for the U.S. War Production Board, trying to create an inexpensive substitute for synthetic rubber at a General Electric lab in Connecticut. When he dropped boric acid into silicone oil, he got a substance that was stretchier and bouncier than rubber, with a weird added feature: When you flattened it against a newspaper or comic-book page, it picked up a perfect copy of the print it touched.

Cool though that was, Wright’s discovery turned out to be no better than the synthetic rubber that already existed. The government didn’t want his “nutty putty,” but a few years later, businessman Peter Hodgson noticed what a hit the stuff was at a party. He renamed it “Silly Putty” and marketed it as a toy, packaging it in colorful plastic eggs because he put it out around Easter time.

Silly Putty become one of the 20th century’s most popular toys … and then people started coming up with practical uses for it, like picking up dirt and lint, and sticking it to a wobbly leg to make a table more stable. Astronauts on the Apollo 8 moon mission even used the goo to keep their tools secure in zero gravity!

Although Silly Putty is very stretchy, it also breaks cleanly and, strangely enough, even shatters if hit with enough force. In 1989, a graduate student at Alfred University in New York state dropped a 100-pound ball of Silly Putty from the roof of a campus building to see what would happen: Would it bounce, break, or just turn into a giant pancake? The massive ball dropped, bounced about eight feet into the air, and then shattered when it hit the ground the second time!


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