Sometimes everyday items have extraordinary origins. Take Silly Putty: What became one of the most popular toys of all time started in a mislabeled bottle of what scientists thought was boron nitride, at a GE research lab in New Haven, Connecticut.
The year was 1943, World War II was raging, and U.S. industry was at the height of a massive mobilization to support the military. This R&D effort led to new technologies ranging from primitive computers that controlled guns on B-29 bombers to new marine engines and turbines to, completely by accident, Silly Putty.
GE scientist James Wright and his team were working around the clock to develop new silicone rubbers for the military—there was an acute shortage of natural rubber in the U.S. because Japan controlled all of its natural sources. Necessity inevitably breeds invention, and Wright’s team ultimately developed a super-durable silicone compound that was used to make gaskets on GE’s airplane turbosuperchargers and Navy searchlights. En route to those breakthroughs, Silly Putty was born.
Wright spent over a year experimenting with different combinations of chemical compounds, hoping to produce a synthetic, “hard rubber” silicone that could withstand the high heat of jet engines or the freezing cold of nights on Navy ships. Towards the end of the summer in 1943, he and his team tried adding boron nitride as filler to an experimental silicone compound. But the scientists then learned that the substance they thought was boron nitride was actually a mixture of other chemical compounds, including boric acid. So they tried adding just boric acid.
The rest, as they say, is history. The resulting substance was gooey, not hard. Frustrated, Wright threw the goop onto the floor and to his surprise, it bounced right back up at him. A reporter from the Saturday Evening Post described the scene in a story (which, alas, is not online): “‘Golly,’ the scientist exclaimed as he dropped a ball of silicone putty, ‘look at it bounce!’”
While the harder form of synthetic rubber was responsible for ultimately boosting the war effort, the accidental bouncing putty captured America’s attention. Wright and his team, not sure what to do with their find, started handing it out to local children. In 1944, newspaper reporters, mesmerized by news of the bouncy byproduct, crashed a GE cocktail party in Manhattan intended to showcase the silicone discovery. According to a “Talk of the Town” piece in The New Yorker: “A couple of morosely sportive photographers began draping a General Electric chemist with strands of bouncing putty. ‘Cut it out, now, fellows,’ the chemist said, giggling nervously.”
By 1950, a New Haven entrepreneur began marketing GE’s happy accident as a toy called Silly Putty. To promote the product, he hired Yale students to fill plastic egg shells with the goop for packaging. GE continued to manufacture Silly Putty until 1959. Binney & Smith, the maker of Crayola products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty in 1977, and in 2001, Wright’s wartime lab mishap was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame.