15 Facts About Silly Putty

Silly Putty is one of the top-selling children’s toys of all time. However, the ooey-gooey substance isn’t just for kids. Here are 15 facts about Silly Putty that prove it’s a true product of American ingenuity—not just a petty plaything. 


Several individuals claim to have invented Silly Putty, but no matter who's claiming the title of inventor, the underlying story's the same: It was definitely created by accident. During World War II, the government asked chemists to search for a synthetic rubber substitute. One scientist, Dr. James Wright—the man who's most commonly credited for Silly Putty's invention—came close. In 1943, the chemical engineer for General Electric added a bit of boric acid to silicon oil. He noticed that the compound polymerized to form a resilient, flexible material that was almost like rubber. But the substance tended to melt, and it couldn’t hold a solid shape.

A toy store owner named Ruth Fallgatter caught wind of the goo and decided to carry it in her New Haven, Conn. toy store. Eventually, she lost interest in the product. However, a marketing consultant named Peter Hodgson was more than happy to take it off her hands. 


Hodgson decided to re-name the goo “Silly Putty” and sell it on his own. But it wasn’t just whimsy that drove Hodgson to package Silly Putty in plastic eggs—it was also timing. Spring was arriving, Hodgson needed a promotional hook, and what would sell a new toy better than a commercial holiday like Easter?


Silly Putty wasn’t a hit at the 1950 International Toy Fair. Still, buyers at Neiman-Marcus and Doubleday bookstores picked it up, and before long, the novelty item had received a shout-out in the New Yorker’s “Talk of the Town” section. Thanks to the New Yorker, Hodgson received more than 250,000 orders in three days.

But Silly Putty really took off once the savvy marketing man identified a more lucrative customer base: children. Hodgson created a TV ad campaign for Silly Putty that’s today credited as one of the first commercials for kids. The strategy paid off; when Hodgson died in 1976, his estate was worth $140 million. Today, it would be worth close to $590 million. 


restriction on silicone during the Korean War meant that Hodgson had to stop making Silly Putty for a few years. Business suffered, but sales picked up once the fighting ended. 


Binney & Smith—the Easton, Penn.-based company that invented the now-eponymous Crayola crayon—purchased Silly Putty a year after Hodgson’s death. (Today, the company goes by Crayola LLC.) The two products are manufactured in the same factory. 


Drop a ball of Silly Putty and it bounces. Throw it from a roof and it shatters into pieces. Pull it apart, and it stretches. Hit it with a hammer and it keeps its shape. 


Before Photoshop, crafty kids could digitally manipulate and distort images by placing Silly Putty over newspaper, lifting it off, and transferring the ink onto a new surface. Sadly, this is no longer the case; today’s newspapers are printed using nontransferable ink.


Silly Putty became as historically relevant as Judy Garland’s iconic ruby slippers after a sampling of the brand’s products were added to the National Museum of American History’s permanent collections. According to museum archivist John A. Fleckner, he chose to include Silly Putty because it’s “a case study of invention, business and entrepreneurship, and longevity."


In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts took Silly Putty to lunar orbit with them in a specially crafted sterling-silver egg. It amused the bored crew, but the toy also had a practical purpose: It was used to hold down tools in zero gravity. 


Athletes use Silly Putty to strengthen their grip—a practice popularized by famous football player Raymond Barry


The Columbus Zoo in Ohio once used Silly Putty to make molds of gorilla paws for educational purposes. No word on whether the animals enjoyed playing with Silly Putty as much as their human counterparts. 


Artist George Horner’s paintings are produced on an unusual canvas: large swaths of Silly Putty. These playful works sell for thousands of dollars


According to Crayola, more than 300 million eggs of Silly Putty have been sold since 1950. That’s 4500 tons of goo! 


Silly Putty was first sold in 1950 for $1. Today, it retails for the same price—but don’t think you’re scoring the same deal as your parents or grandparents. Silly Putty eggs used to contain 1-ounce lumps. Now, they hold less than .5 ounces. 


Modern-day incarnations of Silly Putty range from neon to gold and glow-in-the-dark—a far cry from the peach-colored polymer that first filled eggs in 1950. However, scientists have never bothered to tinker with the basic formula, a mixture of silicone oil and boric acid. It’s remained the same for 65 years, and will most likely stay that way. Talk about a childhood constant you can count on. 

If You’ve Ever Seen a Ghost, Science May Explain Why

Despite all the reports of ghost sightings (28 percent of Americans report having ghostly encounters), there’s zero evidence to support the presence of supernatural beings among us. Science may not prove the existence of ghosts, but it can help explain why people think they see ghosts in the first place.

In this video from Vox, paranormal investigator Joe Nickell identifies some of the phenomena believers may mistake for paranormal activity. One possible explanation is infrasound, or the sound waves that fall beneath levels of human perception. Though we can’t hear these noises firsthand, our bodies sense them in other ways. This can cause chills, feelings of unease and depression, and even hallucinations.

Other contributors may include sleep paralysis (when you wake up while your body is immobile and experience waking nightmares) and grief. There are also a few less common possibilities that aren’t covered in the video below: Mold poisoning, for instance, can lead to irrational fear and dementia. Suddenly, a visit from a poltergeist doesn’t sound so scary.

[h/t Vox]

Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Charles Dickens, Part-Time Mesmerist
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Madame Augusta de la Rue dreaded the end of each day. After settling into bed, her anxiety kept her alert with visions of a figure that followed her into her dreams. When it wasn’t insomnia, she dealt with headaches, a nervous tic, convulsions, and a “burning and raging” mind that was impossible to quiet. Her symptoms became so severe that in 1844 she sought a trendy and controversial treatment known as mesmerism. Her mesmerist: the famous author Charles Dickens.

When Dickens encountered mesmerism in the 1830s, the practice was well-established in the medical community. The German doctor Franz Anton Mesmer had introduced it in the 1770s as a means of manipulating something he called animal magnetism—the magnetic fluid Mesmer believed flowed through the bodies of all living things. According to his theory, the state of this liquid energy was closely tied to one’s health: An uninterrupted flow led to wellness, while blockages caused problems ranging from vomiting to hysteria. Fortunately, Mesmer claimed, these conditions could be cured with a magnet and a steady hand.

By guiding magnets along his patients’ bodies, Mesmer thought he could redistribute the fluid, although he eventually ditched the magnets in favor of his bare hands after discovering they worked just as well. Soon, anyone who shared Mesmer’s supposed magnetic gifts could practice mesmerism by laying or passing their hands over the afflicted. (On top of adding animal magnetism to the lexicon, Mesmer is said to have given us the flirtatious phrase making a pass.) Although responses to mesmeric sessions varied, some claimed it gave them full relief of various physical ailments.

Mesmer died in 1815, a couple decades before the start of the Victorian era. With that period came a nationwide obsession with the metaphysical that renewed public interest in mesmerism not just as a medical treatment, but as a form of entertainment. Practitioners would mesmerize patients into trances and parade them around parties. But some were more than performance artists—John Elliotson, one of the most prolific figures in the field, was a well-respected surgeon famous for popularizing the stethoscope. He was also good friends with Charles Dickens.

Dickens first witnessed mesmerism up close at a demonstration Elliotson gave at London’s University College Hospital in 1838. The writer was intrigued, and implored Elliotson to show him more. Not everyone had a knack for mesmerism, but Dickens was a natural. He wrote years later, “I have the perfect conviction that I could magnetize a Frying-Pan.”

Around the same time he took on Dickens as his pupil, Elliotson watched his career implode. The medical community was then embroiled in a fierce debate over whether or not mesmerism was a legitimate science. One of its staunchest opponents was Thomas Wakley, editor of the British medical journal The Lancet. Wakley affirmed his suspicions after conducting a trial in which the O’Key sisters, two of Elliotson’s more colorful patients, failed to respond to certain "mesmerized" metals yet produced fits in response to materials they were only told were mesmerized. The results of the trial seemed to prove that mesmerism was fake, and Elliotson resigned from his job at University College Hospital shortly after that.

Throughout the controversy, Dickens remained a loyal friend—he even asked Elliotson to be the godfather of his second child. He also continued pursuing his new hobby. In 1842, while in Pittsburgh with his wife Catherine as part of the research for his travelogue American Notes for General Circulation, he first put his mesmerism skills to the test, with Catherine agreeing to be his guinea pig. After several minutes of waving his hands over her head just like Elliotson had taught him, she devolved into hysterics and promptly fell asleep. Dickens took her dramatic response as a sign of his power, and he considered the trial a great success.

From then on, he practiced his talent on whoever was game. His sister-in-law Georgina Hogarth reacted much like Catherine, slipping into a hysterical episode almost immediately. John Leech, who did the original illustrations for A Christmas Carol, came to Dickens for treatment after injuring his head while swimming. Leech felt much better following their session and Dickens took credit for his recovery. The actor Charles Macready, however, was the rare person who didn’t buy the shtick. After Dickens tried to mesmerize him, Macready described the experience as “very unpleasant,” saying “it could not effect me.”

Dickens’s dabblings with mesmerism culminated with a visit to Italy beginning in 1844. He was once again traveling in the name of research, this time for his nonfiction book Pictures From Italy. While staying in Genoa, he became good friends with the Swiss banker Emile de la Rue. He also became close with the banker's English-born wife, Madame Augusta de la Rue—the woman destined to become his most challenging patient. Madame de la Rue suffered from a host of ailments that stemmed from her anxiety, and after hearing about her issues, Dickens offered to help the only way he knew how.

Their first session, which took place in December 1844, may have discouraged a less-experienced mesmerist. Instead of easing her discomfort, his gestures made her more agitated. Madame de la Rue succumbed to a massive anxiety attack, and Dickens took her sensitivity to the treatment as a good sign. They both agreed to see each other again, and soon the meetings became part of their routines.

Madame de la Rue’s response to the therapy grew more promising with each encounter. Her face, once tense with muscle spasms, started to soften. The volume of her thoughts dropped a few notches and she was able to fall asleep much faster. Satisfied with his success treating her physical suffering, Dickens delved deeper into her psyche. He asked her to describe her thoughts and dreams, hoping to get to the root of her illness. The most persistent vision she shared was one of a “phantom” that dogged her whether she was asleep or awake. Dickens described the power it held over her in a letter to her husband:

“That figure is so closely connected with the secret distresses of her very soul—and the impression made upon it is so entwined with her confidence and trust in me, and her knowledge of the power of the Magnetism—that it must not make head again. From what I know from her, I know there is more danger and delay in one appearance of that figure than in a dozen fits of the severest bodily pain. Believe nothing she says of her capacity of endurance, if the reappearance of that figure should become frequent. Consult that mainly, and before all other signs.”

Decades before Sigmund Freud adopted hypnosis as a psychotherapy tool, Dickens was using mesmerism to trace his patient’s visible symptoms to her subconscious mind.

Catherine Dickens didn’t share her husband's excitement for the situation. She had always been jealous of the women her husband mesmerized, and she felt especially threatened by his relationship with Madame de La Rue. And if she thought she’d have her husband’s full attention when they left Genoa to see the rest of Italy in the spring of 1845, she was mistaken. Letters from de La Rue updating Mr. Dickens on her status followed him around the country. Even though they couldn’t be in the same room, the pair continued their appointments remotely by attempting to connect through telepathy for one hour starting at 11 a.m. each day.

Though her condition had vastly improved since their first meeting, the Madame hoped to see Dickens one last time when he finally returned to Genoa in May 1845. Unfortunately a stomach bug prevented the pair from reuniting. He wrote to her in a letter:

"You must not think I am sending you an excuse in lieu of myself. I am in a hideous digestive state, cross, uncomfortable, bilious, blah and limp. A mutton chop and a long walk, and nobody to be contradictory to, are the remedies I have prescribed myself.”

After he resettled in England, Dickens’s passion for mesmerism cooled. He indulged in other mystical hobbies, however: In 1849, he performed stage magic under the pseudonym The Unparalleled Necromancer, Rhia Rhama Rhoos; in 1852, he wrote a spontaneous combustion scene into his realistic fiction book Bleak House, a decision he defended with conviction after it angered scientists. Like many fads to emerge from the Victorian era, those areas of interest have since largely faded from fashion. Mesmerism, on the other hand, laid the foundation for modern hypnosis—but today the treatment is administered by mental health professionals, not young novelists on vacation.


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