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A combination of history, engineering, accident and entrepreneurship produced one of the most successful toys of the twentieth century—Silly Putty®.
Early in World War II, James Wright was working in General Electric's New Haven, Connecticut labs, under a government contract to create an inexpensive substitute for synthetic rubber. One day in 1943, Wright happened to drop boric acid into silicone oil, and was astonished to find that the resultant goo would stretch and bounce further than rubber, even at extreme temperatures. In addition, the substance would copy any newspaper or comic-book print that it touched.
By 1945, General Electric had shared this "nutty putty" with scientists around the world, only to find that none of them, including those at the US War Production Board, found it more practical than the synthetic rubber already then being produced.
The putty seemed doomed to remain a local curiosity; but in 1949, an unemployed ad man named Peter Hodgson attended a party at which "nutty putty" was the main entertainment. Seeing its marketing potential as a children's toy, Hodgson borrowed $147, bought the production rights from GE, and began producing the goo. He renamed it Silly Putty®, and packaged it in plastic eggs because Easter was on the way. Soon, Silly Putty® was a sensational, multi-million-dollar seller.
Ironically, it was only after its success as a toy that practical uses were found for Silly Putty®. It picks up dirt, lint and pet hair, and can stabilize wobbly furniture; but it has also been used in stress-reduction and physical therapy, and in medical and scientific simulations. The crew of Apollo 8 even used it to secure tools in zero-gravity.
Peter Hodgson's product left him an estate of $140 million at his death in 1976. Silly Putty®, still a recognized name in over 95% of American households, remains one of the classic novelty products of modern times.