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How silly putty bounced back from its failed shot at replacing rubber

When looking at the now-iconic plastic egg, or weirder spin-offs of Silly Putty products, it’s weird to think that the “real solid liquid” was originally created to solve supply problems in World War II. In 1943, James Wright was trying to find a way to synthesize the rubber that was needed in all kinds of wartime machinery, hoping that the combination of silicon oil and boric acid would alleviate supply and logistics problems for the Allies. While the resulting polymer did have some good elasticity to it, it was clear that something that bounced, stretched, snapped and copied newsprint wasn’t really going to work so well as a truck tire.

Wright still hoped that this viscous, non-Newtonian fluid would serve some purpose in the world though. Like other viscous fluids like syrup or honey, it is sensitive to temperature, showing some resistance to flow but growing softer and more liquid as it heats up. Even though three minutes in a microwave will turn it into a sticky liquid, it will be back to normal when it cools down. On the other hand, the non-Newtonian side of things means that Silly Putty is also sensitive to force, which is why hitting it quickly feels like you’re hitting a solid, rather than pushing into a liquid like water. Combined with the elasticity of the polymer chains, you have a substance that can be rolled into a ball and bounced, but without that pressure will slowly ooze into a puddle at room temperature. In 1989, the limits of these states were tested at Alfred University by dropping a 100 pound ball of Silly Putty off the roof of an engineering building. The ball bounced eight feet into the air, but then shattered on it’s second bounce when the hydrogen bonds that hold the polymers together couldn’t take any more force.

From fighting to fun

With little demand for bouncing, snapping fluids in the war, Silly Putty was informally passed around different social circles until it ended up in the hands of a toy store owner in 1949. Ruth Fallgatter was able to quickly sell through a stock of the “bouncing putty,” but didn’t pursue the product after one year of sales. Peter Hodgeson, an advertising consultant, took the reins and packaged the putty in plastic eggs for the first time, and managed to place the hard-to-describe putty to Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores. The $1 eggs lingered until a writer for The New Yorker wrote a column on the strange goo, triggering a sales sensation.

Flexible functionality

In 1977, Crayola purchased the rights to Silly Putty, and while it’s still sold primarily as a toy, people have finally found more utilitarian applications for the stuff. The non-Newtonian aspect makes it a good furniture leveler, as the force of the table helps keep it from oozing too much, while still conforming to unusual shapes and surfaces. People have used it to stop up holes, act as a finger grip when counting money, pick up lint like adhesive tape, provide resistance for hand-muscle strengthening, and more. Silly Putty was even put to use in space, when Apollo 8 astronauts used it to fashion a flexible, sticky tool-holder in zero gravity. It’s probably never been used in anyone’s radials, but the world has still obviously benefited from this wonderfully flexible and inflexible substance.

Source: The History of Silly Putty by Jennifer Rosenberg, About Education

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