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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. 

1. SILLY PUTTY WAS INVENTED BY ACCIDENT.

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. 

2. SILLY PUTTY WAS PACKED IN PLASTIC EGGS BECAUSE IT WAS EASTER.

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?

3. SILLY PUTTY WAS FIRST MARKETED TOWARD ADULTS.

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. 

4. SILLY PUTTY PRODUCTION WAS HALTED DURING THE KOREAN WAR.

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. 

5. SILLY PUTTY IS NOW OWNED BY THE COMPANY THAT MAKES CRAYOLA CRAYONS.

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. 

6.  SILLY PUTTY IS A "LIQUID SOLID." 

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. 

7. IT ONCE LIFTED INK OFF NEWSPRINT.

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.

8. IT'S IN THE SMITHSONIAN.

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."

9. IT’S BEEN IN SPACE.

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. 

10. IT’S USED AS A GRIP ENHANCER.

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

11. IT’S BEEN USED BY ZOOS.

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. 

12. IT’S MADE INTO ART.

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

13. IT’S ONE OF HISTORY’S TOP-SELLING TOYS.

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

14. ITS PRICE HAS NEVER CHANGED.

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. 

15. ITS FORMULA IS TIMELESS.

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. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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technology
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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iStock
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Health
One Bite From This Tick Can Make You Allergic to Meat
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iStock

We like to believe that there’s no such thing as a bad organism, that every creature must have its place in the world. But ticks are really making that difficult. As if Lyme disease wasn't bad enough, scientists say some ticks carry a pathogen that causes a sudden and dangerous allergy to meat. Yes, meat.

The Lone Star tick (Amblyomma americanum) mostly looks like your average tick, with a tiny head and a big fat behind, except the adult female has a Texas-shaped spot on its back—thus the name.

Unlike other American ticks, the Lone Star feeds on humans at every stage of its life cycle. Even the larvae want our blood. You can’t get Lyme disease from the Lone Star tick, but you can get something even more mysterious: the inability to safely consume a bacon cheeseburger.

"The weird thing about [this reaction] is it can occur within three to 10 or 12 hours, so patients have no idea what prompted their allergic reactions," allergist Ronald Saff, of the Florida State University College of Medicine, told Business Insider.

What prompted them was STARI, or southern tick-associated rash illness. People with STARI may develop a circular rash like the one commonly seen in Lyme disease. They may feel achy, fatigued, and fevered. And their next meal could make them very, very sick.

Saff now sees at least one patient per week with STARI and a sensitivity to galactose-alpha-1, 3-galactose—more commonly known as alpha-gal—a sugar molecule found in mammal tissue like pork, beef, and lamb. Several hours after eating, patients’ immune systems overreact to alpha-gal, with symptoms ranging from an itchy rash to throat swelling.

Even worse, the more times a person is bitten, the more likely it becomes that they will develop this dangerous allergy.

The tick’s range currently covers the southern, eastern, and south-central U.S., but even that is changing. "We expect with warming temperatures, the tick is going to slowly make its way northward and westward and cause more problems than they're already causing," Saff said. We've already seen that occur with the deer ticks that cause Lyme disease, and 2017 is projected to be an especially bad year.

There’s so much we don’t understand about alpha-gal sensitivity. Scientists don’t know why it happens, how to treat it, or if it's permanent. All they can do is advise us to be vigilant and follow basic tick-avoidance practices.

[h/t Business Insider]

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