Perhaps one of the wildest accidental research discoveries occurred during World War II, when General Electric scientist James Wright mixed boric acid and silicone oil in an attempt to create a rubber substitute in 1943.
In 1942, Japan had cut off the West from 90% of its natural rubber supply when it “invaded Indonesia and other rubber-producing parts of Southeast Asia.”
Tires, gas masks, planes, boats, and tanks required massive amounts of rubber for manufacture and to keep operational. Without rubber the Allies could not compete.
The US government orchestrated an extensive public-private research partnership to develop a synthetic rubber. Wright’s “strange substance” was a failed rubber substitute (other researchers were successful) that had very odd characteristics.
When smashed with a hammer, it broke into hundreds of pieces. Tossed against a wall, it bounced right back. Left alone for a long time, it slowly oozed like a liquid.
At Dow Corning, researcher Earl Warrick created the same odd substance.
Over the years the two scientists would entertain their friends with the puttylike polymer. These friends in turn shared it with others, until eventually a sample ended up in the hands of Ruth Fallgatter, a toy-store owner. It remained mostly unknown until 1949, when Fallgatter showed it to an advertising consultant named Peter Hodgson.
Hodgson bought the “bouncing putty”; renamed it Silly Putty; and “sold it in one-ounce portions inside small plastic eggs in time for Easter in 1950.”
Silly Putty … belongs to a category of matter called non-Newtonian fluids. Other examples with less pronounced effects include blood, ketchup, and toothpaste.
Initially, Silly Putty was marketed as “The Real Solid Liquid.” In the mid-1950s, Silly Putty appeared in TV commercials during The Howdy Doody Show and Captain Kangaroo.
Crayola bought the rights to Silly Putty in 1977 after Hodgson died. Crayola sells a variety of Silly Putty iterations today, still in that plastic egg!
In 2001, “the pinkish goo in the red plastic egg” was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame with more than 300 million units (4,000 tons) sold since 1950.