Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Apple #346: Silly Putty

Silly Putty. Just because.
(Photo from Games & Jigsaws, where you can buy an egg of Silly Putty for $1.79.)

  • Silly Putty became a toy sort of by accident. Originally, during World War II, Japan was invading lots of countries where the US got its rubber, so rubber was less and less available. So the government asked scientists to come up with a synthetic alternative.
  • In 1943, a scientist named James Wright who was working for General Electric mixed silicone oil with boric acid and got something stretchy and bouncy.
  1. Silicone is a rubbery, bouncy substance that is made up of alternating atoms of silicon and oxygen.
  2. Boric acid is an acid, but it's a relatively weak one. It's used as an antiseptic (i.e., to clean wounds), and together with other materials as a fire retardant or in adhesives (glue) or detergents.
  3. Never fear, the resulting Silly Putty is non-toxic.
  • Anyway, he thought his bouncy stuff might just be the synthetic rubber the gov'ment was looking for. So he shopped it around to various scientists and engineers, but nobody could figure out a practical use for it.

Lifting images using Silly Putty is one of its most common uses. An entirely practical application.
(Photo from HowStuffWorks)

  • Then in 1949, a woman who owned a toy store in New Haven, where James Wright was from, saw the bouncy stuff and thought it would make a fun toy. So they advertised it in her catalog for $2. It wound up outselling every other toy in her catalog, except Crayola Crayons.
  • In the mid-1950s, its popularity soared. There were commercials for it on Howdy Doody and Captain Kangaroo. Children in Europe and the Soviet Union were loving Silly Putty. In 1968, astronauts took Silly Putty with them on board the Apollo 8.

Frank Borman on board the Apollo 8, where somewhere there are also some eggs of Silly Putty.
(Photo from Wikipedia)

  • At some point, the Silly Putty recipe changed, but the people who own Silly Putty aren't saying what it is because that's a trade secret.
  • But they will say it's a polymer (chemical that has lots of very long chains of molecules hooked together) that still has silicone in it, plus boric acid and some fillers like clay and calcium carbonate.
  • By the way, the people who own Silly Putty now is a company called Binney & Smith, which makes Crayola Crayons. Although now Binney & Smith is itself owned by Hallmark.
  • Now, Binney & Smith make 300 pounds, or 12,000 eggs of Silly Putty each day.

This is only one case of Silly Putty, which holds 100 eggs, or 1/120 of the number of Silly Putty eggs made in a day. If you really wanted this much Silly Putty, it would set you back $120.
(Photo from the Crayola Store)

  • Recently, Silly Putty had a contest, asking people to suggest the silliest uses they could think of. The winner, who was awarded a 14-karat gold Silly Putty egg, suggested the following:
Form Silly Putty into a ball, throw it at the stock market listings and invest in the stock it lifts off the page. (Peter H. from Collinsville, CT)
  • My personal favorite is this suggestion, from Judith D. of Norwich, CT:
End an unbearable date by making a swollen gland with Silly Putty and excusing yourself because you're not feeling well.
  • I also like this one from Alex Z. of Plymouth, MN:
Make a boat for your pet hamster.

Here are some unusual things that people have actually done with their Silly Putty:

  • A bunch of software engineers and product managers at Google one day decided to see what they could do with enormous amounts of Silly Putty. So they ordered 250 pounds of it. The biggest challenge was how do you pull off a single-serving-sized hunk of Silly Putty from the huge mountain of it.

After twelve people spent two hours stabbing, twisting, and wrestling with the stuff, everyone in the group had gotten some.
(Photo from the Official Google Blog)

  • A designer named Jonathan Zobro made a clock that uses Silly Putty to measure time. Except its increments are in days, not minutes or even hours.

(Photo from Jonathan Zobro's site)

  • A guy named Rodger Cole who builds models used Silly Putty as a mask, to cover up one color and then spray painting the whole thing with another color.

Here's the tank with the areas he doesn't want to turn tan covered with the Silly Putty. After he sprayed on the tan color, after a few minutes it looked like the Silly Putty was melting. So he put the whole thing in the freezer. "Worked like a charm." After the paint had dried, he peeled off the Silly Putty and everything was the color he wanted it to be, and he was able to use the Silly Putty again.
(Photo from ModelGeek)

  • For your Halloween needs, you can also get Blood Putty:

This stuff will stain clothes and surfaces, so don't get that bloody putty on anything important.
(Photo from Nerd Approved. Bloody Putty is available for $4.99 from Club Earth)

  • Of course you can always make your own Silly Putty -- or a substance that comes awfully close.

These kids made their own Silly Putty and are justifiably proud of it.
(Photo by Tie, on PicasaWeb)

This recipe uses glue, water, and starch, plus food coloring.

Here's another recipe -- with a soundtrack, even -- that uses glue, water, and borax. The results with this one are a little more runny.

By the way, if you get Silly Putty stuck in your hair, several mothers say they had success in using Pam cooking spray and a fine tooth comb. Another mother said that hand sanitizer worked even better to get it out.

Silly Putty, Silly Science, History 101
How Products Are Made, Silly Putty
One Look, silicone, polymer, boric acid
Sightseer's Guide to Engineering, Crayola Factory
Thrifty Fun, Removing Silly Putty from Hair


  1. Silly putty is SOOO silly! I guess thats why they called it silly putty!

  2. Have you ever tried copying the words of on an article onto the silly putty to another piece of paper and see if it stays on the other paper? i dont knoww yet if it works but i'm going to try it out!!!


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