How Silly Putty Became the World’s Most Malleable Toy

A bungled WWII chemistry experiment saved by an adman

A few days shy of Christmas 1968, the Apollo 8 mission blasted off from Cape Kennedy, Fla., with Captain James Lovell and two other astronauts aboard. The mission would accomplish many firsts. It was the first time the new Saturn V rocket would be used, the first time men entered a lunar orbit, and one other first that escaped the history books. A revolutionary new substance was aboard that the astronauts used to fix their tools in place and keep them from floating around in zero gravity.

It was called Silly Putty.

Photo: Nick Ferrari

Actually, it wasn't so new. After its introduction as a toy in 1950, American kids had been finding endless uses for the viscous, bouncing polymer for years. But as far as adults went, Apollo 8 represented yet another attempt to find a practical use for a product that never quite found one.

Which might be the whole point. The fact that Silly Putty has no purpose encourages experimentation. And that, said National Museum of Play chief curator Christopher Bensch, is one reason Silly Putty has endured for so long. "There's just a pleasurable, tactile quality to stretching it," he said. "If it's a rainy day and you need something to keep the kids amused, Silly Putty is one of those great things."

The great thing was born by accident. During World War II, Japan's invasion of Singapore choked off 90 percent of America's rubber supply. The War Production Board appealed to the private sector for help. James Wright, a chemical engineer for General Electric, took up the challenge. After mixing boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube, Wright extracted a gooey, flesh-colored substance with bizarre properties. It stretched and bounced, but also snapped and even shattered. It lifted ink off newsprint, allowing for the amusing manipulation of pictures. The stuff was fascinating—and utterly useless as a rubber substitute.

Instead, GE executives began taking their "nutty putty" to cocktail parties, where it amused the smart set. One of them was adman Peter Hodgson who, after test-marketing the stuff in a small toy catalog, bought the manufacturing rights from GE and changed the name to Silly Putty. In 1950, Doubleday book stores began selling what The New Yorker called a "gooey, pinkish, repellent-looking commodity" to the public—priced at $1 and packaged in plastic eggs supplied by the Connecticut Cooperative Poultry Association.

According to Stephen J. Lanzilla, founder of the Boston Area Toy Collectors Club, it was the egg that helped push the product over the top. "The packaging took the fear factor away," he said. "It's something that prompted a parent to say, 'What could be dangerous if it's inside an egg?'" It also didn't hurt, Lanzilla added, that at a time when gender-specific toys are still the norm, Silly Putty's appeal is genderless.

And huge. Some 350 million Silly Putty eggs (about 5,500 tons) have been sold since 1950, according to Crayola, which acquired the brand in 1977. Some years ago the company sponsored a contest for the craziest uses for Silly Putty. Among the submissions: hanging things up with Silly Putty and using it in place of office supplies.

But those uses weren't really all that silly. After all, the Apollo 8 astronauts tried it.