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Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Silly Putty

How many of you read the newspaper as a kid?

I know this seems like a random question to ask, especially since I reckon that almost all of us glanced at a newspaper at some point in our lives.  For some people, they read the whole paper from front to back.  Some people like reading the horoscopes.  Some flip through the sports section to get the latest scores.  Some people even look at the obituaries to see who they have outlived!

(That last one isn’t a joke.  I know.  My parents do this often.)

And, then there are some people like me who have to flip to the entertainment and comics section.  Given the fact that I have a pop culture themed blog, this really shouldn’t surprise anyone.

And after I did the Word Jumble, I read the various comic strips in the newspaper each day.  It was a lot of fun, and I remember having a ball reading all those funny jokes.

Of course, the funny pages ended up being a little bit more fun with the addition of a special accessory that I got as a gift when I was a six year old boy.

It wasn’t a magnifying wasn’t a set of wasn’t even a glue stick and a scrapbook to cut out my favourites to keep on display (though when I was a kid I did do this).

Nope.  It was this stuff.

And, I bet almost everyone knows what Silly Putty is, right?  This ball of rubbery goo was sort of a mixture between Play-Doh and rubber, and it had an interesting property that not a lot of substances had.  If one were to roll the Silly Putty into a ball, flatten it out on a piece of newsprint, and peel it off of the paper, the ink would transpose itself onto the Silly Putty, like this.

Then comes the fun part.  If one were to stretch the putty out, the images on the Putty would warp right with it.  I used to use Silly Putty all the time on newspapers and comic books all the time.  Snoopy’s head would become narrow, Veronica Lodge from Archie comics would become rounder, and you don’t even want to know what sorts of things I did with Blondie Bumstead.

With the putty!  THE PUTTY!  Sheesh, get your minds out of the gutter, people!

So, I guess it’s no secret that the subject of today’s blog is Silly Putty.  In this edition of the blog, we’ll learn about how Silly Putty was created, when it started appearing on store shelves, and some of the substances in which Silly Putty will NOT mix well with.  Contrary to the beliefs of some, Silly Putty isn’t as indestructible as people think.

The history of Silly Putty begins right around World War II.  At the height of the war, Japan had invaded several rubber-producing nations and eradicated their supply to be able to produce rafts, tires, gas masks, and boots.  Because of this, the rubber supplies in the United States were rationed, with American citizens strongly urged to conserve their rubber products so that they would last longer.  So while Americans donated spare tires and rubber coats to be recycled, the American government looked into alternate synthetic compounds as a rubber substitute in order to get through the rubber shortage.

Sometime during these brainstorming sessions, the patent for Silly Putty was born.  The problem is...the true identity of the person who came up with the patent is still being debated years after it was created.  At some point, the patent for Silly Putty has been credited to Earl Warrick and his partner Rob Roy McGregor of Dow Corning, Scottish inventor James Wright of General Electric, and Harvey Chin.

Throughout his lifetime, Warrick insisted that he and McGregor came up with the patent before Wright did, yet Crayola (who purchased the rights to manufacture Silly Putty in 1977), insists that Wright had invented the product in 1943.  I was unable to find any information on Harvey Chin though, so I’m not exactly sure how he factors into this, but one thing is for certain, we will likely never know who really came up with the patent.

One thing that we do know is that both Warrick and Wright came up with the basic formula behind the creation of  Silly Putty, which involves the process of combining boric acid with silicone oil.  The end product was a substance that was gooey, and that could bounce like a rubber ball.  In fact, the substance had some unique qualities.  It had a very high melting temperature, could bounce when dropped, and could stretch even further than standard rubber. 

The only problem with the invention was that while it was a decent enough product by itself, it unfortunately didn’t have all the properties needed to replace rubber completely, so the substance was never actually used.  Despite Wright’s efforts to send the substance out to scientists all over the world in hopes of finding an alternate use for the substance, but all attempts came up empty...

...until 1949, that is.

That was the year that toy store owner Ruth Fallgatter acquired a sample of the substance and was very intrigued by it.  She contacted a man by the name of Peter Hodgson, who worked as a marketing consultant.  The pair decided to market the substance as a toy by encasing it in a clear container.  The substance ended up selling very well at Fallgatter’s toy store, but after a while, she decided that she did not want to pursue any further business opportunities involving the product, and walked away.  This set the stage for Hodgson to take the putty and make it a gold mine.

Hodgson was already in debt, so in order for him to begin selling the product, he had to take out a loan of $147 to finance his business plan.

(Keep in mind that $147 was worth a lot of money in the 1940s.)

But that was all he needed to package the substance in one ounce plastic eggs that retailed for $1 each.  Hodgson was also the one who came up with the “Silly Putty” name.  Within three days, Hodgson ended up eliminating his debt by selling over a quarter of a million units of Silly Putty!

Now, in 1951, Hodgson was almost put out of business when a ration on silicone was implemented as a direct result of the Korean War, but that restriction was lifted a year later.  And, by 1957 (the same year that the first television advertisement for Silly Putty aired during the Howdy Doody Show), thousands of children aged 6-12 were playing with Silly Putty.  The substance was even launched into lunar orbit by the astronauts of Apollo 8 in years after it began to be sold worldwide.  Silly Putty ended up making Hodgson a very rich man.  And, by 1987 (eleven years after Hodgson’s death), it was estimated that an average of two million eggs of Silly Putty a year!

These days, Silly Putty is still a top-selling toy.  It’s estimated that twenty thousand units of Silly Putty are sold daily, and the substance (which was originally sold in its natural coral colour) is now available in several different styles and colours, including glow-in-the-dark and metallic shades.  The toy was even inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2001!

But, that’s not to say that Silly Putty is the absolutely perfect toy.  There are lots of perks to the substance, this is true.  Stretching comics and images out was just part of the fun.  Silly Putty can also be used as a method of removing dirt, pet hair, and lint from a variety of surfaces (I’ve even used it to clean in between the keys on my computer keyboard!), and some physical therapists even use it for rehabilitative therapy of hand injuries!  People who build scale models have used it as a masking medium while spray painting their models.  And astronauts have used Silly Putty to secure their tools in zero-gravity conditions because of its strong adhesive characteristics.

Of course, these adhesive characteristics can prove to be the downfall for Silly Putty.  If one were to get Silly Putty wet, and then stick it on an upholstered surface, a book’s inside pages, or one’s own hair, the substance would take on the consistency of sticky chewing gum.

In short, it would get stuck...just like chewing gum.

There are ways to get it off of upholstery and hair though.  Crayola recommends that you use WD-40, but an alcohol-based hand sanitizer should work just fine.

After all...alcohol happens to be the kryptonite to the substance known as Silly Putty.  You submerge Silly Putty in a glass filled with alcohol it will immediately begin to dissolve.  And while the Silly Putty will ultimately return to its original viscosity after being doused with water, in alcohol, it will lose its original properties forever.

So, let this be a lesson to you all.  If you want to preserve your Silly Putty, do not pour your alcohol over top of it as a party trick.  It will never be the same again...

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