Image Gallery: Classic Toys
Image Gallery: Classic Toys

Ah, the joy of cracking open that red egg and squeezing a little Silly Putty. See more pictures of classic toys.

Image courtesy Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

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Introduction to Silly Putty

They say necessity is the mother of invention, and for Silly Putty, the strange material that ships in an egg and behaves sometimes like a liquid and other times like a solid, necessity came in the form of Imperial Japan. In the early 1940s, as Germany waged war in Europe, the Empire of the Sun invaded rubber-producing countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and the Philippines, cutting off supplies to the West. This was more than a minor issue. For every U.S. soldier that went into battle, the military needed 32 pounds (nearly 15 kilograms) of rubber -- for boots, tires, clothing and other equipment [source: American Chemical Society]. Japan's invasion of Southeast Asia threatened, literally, the entire war effort.

At a loss, the U.S. War Production Board challenged industrial labs and academic institutions to develop a synthetic rubber that could be used to meet wartime production demands. Collectively, the chemists working on the problem may have achieved one of the greatest successes in the history of science: They produced a general-purpose synthetic rubber known as GR-S, or government rubber-styrene, in sufficient quantity to meet the needs of the U.S. and its allies during World War II.

Individually, there were a few setbacks and wrong turns in the quest for synthetic rubber. One of those wrong turns was made by James Wright in the laboratory of General Electric. Wright mixed boric acid and silicone oil together in the hopes of creating rubber that would make Charles Goodyear proud. Instead, he created a substance he would eventually call "bouncing putty" [source: Crayola]. General Electric sent Wright's concoction to engineers all over the world, hoping to make something awesome out of the accident. Unfortunately, no one ever discovered a practical use for the "bouncing putty," which seemed destined to fade quietly into history.

One man, however, rescued the substance from obscurity. His name was Peter Hodgson, and his vision would eventually lead to Silly Putty, one of the most famous toys in the history of fun and games. In this article, we'll look at the long, strange journey of Silly Putty. We'll also investigate the material's many odd properties -- and the chemistry behind them.

Our first order of business: Hodgson's great gamble.

Look, if it hadn't been for James Wright, Peter Hodgson and all the other folks who had a hand in Silly Putty's creation, how would we be able to fashion these lovely letters?

Image courtesy Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

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Silly Putty History

The year was 1949. World War II had been over for four years, and James Wright's bouncing putty was still in circulation as an invention in search of a practical use. Unfortunately, no factory or manufacturing plant ever discovered an application for the goop. Peter Hodgson, who owned his own ad agency in New Haven, Conn., was at a cocktail party when he spotted the putty making the rounds. He watched as people spent minutes at a time folding, stretching and squeezing the strange stuff. He approached Ruth Fallgatter, owner of the Block Shop toy store, about listing the putty in an upcoming catalog Hodgson was helping to produce. Fallgatter agreed, and the two decided to list it on a page with other adult gifts for the price of $1 [source: Miller].

The bouncing putty became one of the Block Shop's biggest sellers. For reasons that remain unclear, Fallgatter declined to market the product any further, but Hodgson saw its potential. He borrowed $147 to order another batch from General Electric, then hired a Yale student to place 1-ounce (28-gram) wads in plastic eggs. At the same time, Hodgson began to brainstorm names for his product. He evaluated 15 possibilities, but eventually settled on Silly Putty, for which he secured a trademark. Next, he established Arnold Clark Inc. to sell the stuff and contracted with some chemical engineers in Schenectady, N.Y., to derive a recipe based on General Electric's original formula. Hodgson opened a manufacturing plant in North Branford, Conn., to make Silly Putty and, soon after, landed his first customers -- Neiman Marcus and the Doubleday bookshops [source: Crayola].

Then, in August 1950, The New Yorker featured Silly Putty in its Talk of the Town section:

We went into the Doubleday bookshop at Fifth Avenue and Fifty-second Street the other day, intending, in our innocence, to buy a book, and found all the clerks busy selling Silly Putty, a gooey, pinkish, repellent-looking commodity that comes in plastic containers the size and shape of eggs … we sought out Mr. Lee Weber, the manager of the bookshop, to ascertain the mysterious link between it and Doubleday. He told us that Silly Putty is the most terrific item the Doubleday shops have been privileged to handle since 'Forever Amber.'

With that endorsement in The New Yorker, interest in Silly Putty skyrocketed. Arnold Clark received more than a quarter-million orders in three days, and Hodgson's great gamble had paid off. The soft, malleable material soon became a fixture in homes across North America and eventually -- the world. When Hodgson passed away in 1976, Silly Putty was being sold throughout the United States and 22 other countries, with annual sales exceeding $5 million [sources: Haynes, McFadden].

Today, Silly Putty continues to amuse and entertain. Up next, we'll take a closer look at its unusual properties and how they can lead to a contradiction in terms.

Not-so-silly Accomplishments

Silly Putty has been used in a variety of ways over the years. In 1968, for example, Apollo astronauts kept the stuff handy to tack down objects in the low-gravity environment of space. As a toy or as a material with practical applications, people remember Silly Putty fondly, which is why, in 2000, the Smithsonian Institution put the material on display in the National Museum of American History. A year later, Silly Putty was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.

Silly Putty Properties

The original Silly Putty didn't look very exciting. It arrived in an egg and fell out of its shell like a pink blob. The egg had no significance except that Peter Hodgson began selling his product in the weeks leading up to the Easter holiday. It even came delivered in dozen-pack cardboard egg cartons. But the egg quickly became part of Silly Putty's brand, and Hodgson decided to keep the unique packaging long after the first Easter selling season had come and gone.

When you removed the putty from the egg and began to handle it, you saw its peculiar properties immediately: It stretched like taffy, yet broke into pieces if you struck it sharply. You could form it into shapes, like Play-Doh, but unlike its modeling-compound cousin, which held a pose indefinitely, Silly Putty flowed in slow motion. Stick it on the side of a filing cabinet, for example, and it would run down the side slowly, taking weeks -- even months -- to respond to gravity's downward pull. Roll it into a ball and throw it at the ground, and it would bounce 25 percent higher than rubber [source: National Toy Hall of Fame].

In early marketing efforts, Hodgson summed up Silly Putty's enigmatic properties by describing the material as a "solid liquid" [source: Crayola]. Interestingly, he didn't think these qualities would attract kids. In fact, Hodgson saw his product as a purely adult diversion.

"It means five minutes of escape from neurosis," he said in the 1950 article for The New Yorker. "It means not having to worry about Korea or family difficulties. And it appeals to people of superior intellect; the inherent ridiculousness of the material acts as an emotional release to hard-pressed adults."

The official patent document echoed this sentiment by proposing the following practical uses: relieving stress by enabling patients in need of hand therapy to squeeze and manipulate the putty; making impressions of newsprint to relieve boredom; cleaning typewriter keys; blocking low-frequency sounds and sealing vacuum joints.

It didn't take long for kids to see what adults were playing with and to sneak some covert samples. And luckily for everyone, one of Silly Putty's other properties -- nontoxicity -- meant that no one had to worry about accidental poisoning. By 1955, the market flipped, and Silly Putty sales to children overtook sales to adults [source: Crayola]. Eventually, chemistry teachers began to take notice and started teaching the science of Silly Putty. We'll cover some of that science in the next section.

One of Silly Putty's many talents: copying newsprint. It just makes a regular old photocopy seem so boring.

Image courtesy Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

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The Science of Silly Putty

To understand how Silly Putty works, you have to take a dive into the concept of fluid chemistry. You probably think of water when you hear the word fluid, but to chemists and physicists, a fluid is any substance that has no fixed shape and yields easily to external pressure. By this definition, gases can be fluids, as can certain solid-type materials.

A key property of fluids is something known as viscosity, which measures how much a fluid resists flow at a certain temperature. Molten glass, for example, has a high viscosity, or resistance to flow. Other viscous materials include honey, molasses and engine oil. Water, on the other hand, has a lower viscosity. Here are their viscosities at temperature of 68 degrees F (20 degrees C). Note that the measurements are given in pascal seconds, the standard unit of viscosity in the International System of Units.

  • Water: 0.001 pascal seconds
  • Honey: 2-10 pascal seconds
  • Molasses: 5-10 pascal seconds
  • Molten glass: 10-1,000 pascal seconds

As you know from experience, viscosity varies with temperature. It's why honey and syrup flow more easily when heated and why engine oils and hydraulic fluids perform poorly on really cold days. This is true for most fluids -- their viscosity depends only on temperature. Chemists classify such materials as Newtonian fluids in honor of Isaac Newton, who pictured a fluid as a series of layers sliding past each other and reasoned that viscosity is the result of friction between these layers.

Silly Putty is non-Newtonian fluid: Its viscosity depends on both temperature and on the force applied to it. The classic example of such a fluid is corn starch solution. When you mix water with corn starch, you get a material that feels like a thick fluid when it's stirred slowly. Tap on it, though, and it feels like a dense solid. Pour some of the corn starch mixture into your hand and roll it gently, and it will maintain its ball shape. Stop rolling it, and it forms a puddle in the palm of your hand. In other words, it acts like a solid and a liquid all at once.

It seems Peter Hodgson was correct when he described his invention as a "solid liquid." Unlike corn starch solution, however, Silly Putty's solid nature resembles rubber, not rock. That's because its main ingredient is polydimethylsiloxane, a material with viscoelastic properties. In other words, over long flow times or at high temperatures, Silly Putty behaves like a highly viscous fluid. But over short flow times or at low temperatures, it behaves like an elastic solid.

You don't have to have a degree in chemistry or a complex factory to make Silly Putty. A homemade version requires some readily available ingredients and just a few minutes of experimentation. Your course in kitchen chemistry begins on the next page.

In the name of science and Silly Putty, here we are puttering around with the stuff in our lunchroom.

Image courtesy Elizabeth Johnston/HowStuffWorks.com

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Homemade Silly Putty

Teachers love Silly Putty because it embodies the spirit of hands-on science -- and because it offers a fun way to demonstrate how polymers, or long chains of molecules repeated over and over again, work. But buying putty-filled eggs for an entire classroom can be cost-prohibitive. Luckily, it's not too hard to whip up a little private label Silly Putty using ingredients you can find around the house or at the drugstore. The most common recipe uses the following:

  • white craft glue (Elmer's brand works well)
  • borax (20 Mule Team Borax is a common brand)
  • water
  • food coloring (if you want colored putty)

No chemistry experiment is complete without some equipment. You'll need measuring spoons and a measuring cup to get the right proportions for the mixture. You'll also need a large bowl, a small plastic cup and a spoon to mix ingredients together. You might also have a resealable plastic bag or container on hand if you want to save your homemade putty for a few days.

Once you have all of your supplies, you're ready to get silly. Just follow these steps, and you'll be playing with putty in no time:

  1. Empty an 8-ounce (237-milliliter) bottle of glue into the large bowl.
  2. Fill the glue bottle with warm water, shake and pour what remains in the bowl.
  3. Give everything a gentle stir.
  4. Optional: Add a drop or two of food coloring to the glue-water mixture and stir some more. If you don't add food coloring, your finished putty will be white.
  5. In the small plastic cup, add a teaspoon (5 milliliters) of borax powder to 0.5 cup (4 ounces or 118 milliliters) of warm water. Stir the solution.
  6. While stirring the glue-water mixture, slowly add a little bit of the borax solution. You should feel the viscosity increase immediately. Keep adding small amounts of borax solution as you stir until you get a consistency like soft, but firm, window putty. At some point, you should start using your hands to mix and knead the material.
  7. Store in a resealable bag or container to keep soft.

This concoction will undoubtedly impress your friends, but they'll be even more impressed if they hear you explain the chemistry. Here's what's happening: Glue contains a polymer called polyvinyl alcohol, or PVA. In the glue-water mixture, these polymer chains slip and slide past each other easily. But when you add the borax solution to the glue, it connects one PVA molecule to another in a process known as cross-linking. As more chains link up, they no longer slip and slide. Instead, they form a large mat that resembles a net or a spider's web. This is what gives the material its puttylike qualities.

Of course, nothing beats the original Silly Putty you can buy at the toy store. Snap up more links to classic toy tidbits next.

Lots More Information

Related ArticlesSources
  • "Fluid." Encyclopædia Britannica Online. Encyclopædia Britannica, 2011. (Aug. 17, 2011) http://www.britannica.com/EBchecked/topic/211221/fluid
  • Crayola. "Silly Putty Web site." (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.crayola.com/mediacenter/index.cfm?display=press_release&press_release_category=17
  • Haynes, Carol. "Silly Putty -- Early History -- This is What I Know." Personal Blog. January 2011. (Aug. 17, 2011) http://sillyputtyhistory.blogspot.com
  • Marten, Mark. R. "Silly Putty Science." 2006. (Aug. 17, 2011) userpages.umbc.edu/~marten//gsn/silly_putty_science.pdf
  • McFadden, Robert D. "Peter C.L. Hodgson, Marketer of Silly Putty, Dies at Age 64." The New York Times. Aug. 6, 1976.
  • Miller, Marion, Brendan Gill and Harrison Kinney. The Talk of the Town, "Here To Stay." The New Yorker. Aug. 26, 1950.
  • National Historic Chemical Landmarks. "United States Synthetic Rubber Program." American Chemical Society Web site. (Aug. 17, 2011) http://acswebcontent.acs.org/landmarks/landmarks/rbb/index.html
  • National Toy Hall of Fame. "Silly Putty: Inducted 2001." (Sept. 5, 2011) http://www.toyhalloffame.org/toys/silly-putty
  • Silly Putty U. "The History of the Real 'Solid Liquid.'" Binney & Smith Web site. (Aug. 17, 2011) http://www.sillyputty.com/history_101/history101.htm
  • Spangler, Steve. "GAK -- Elmer's Glue Borax Recipe." Steve Spangler Science Web site. (Aug. 17, 2011) http://www.stevespanglerscience.com/experiment/00000039
  • Wright, James. "Patent #2,541,851: Process for Making Puttylike Elastic Plastic, Solioxane Derivative Composition Containing Zinc Oxide." United States Patent Office. Filed Dec. 23, 1944.