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. 

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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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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Sponsor Content: BarkBox
8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.