The joy of putty

The joy of putty

Science fact – silly putty was first marketed for adults not children! We look at the history and science of silly putty, and discover some extraordinary things one can do with it.

Putty is a plastic material, similar in texture to clay or dough. There are a few types of putty – painter’s, plumber’s, Mortite, window – but the one we’ll focus on is Silly Putty because you get the most fun out of it!

Things to do with Silly Putty

So, you’ve got your silly putty and you’re still wondering what to do with it? Well, the devil does make work for idle hands – best keep him away by fiddling with lovely handfuls of silly putty.

Despite Silly Putty being denser than water (meaning it should sink), you can actually make it float. If you place Silly Putty in the plastic egg it tends to come in, it will float. If you remove the Silly Putty from the plastic egg and just roll it into a ball, it will sink. Now try shaping the Silly Putty like a boat – see what happens? Yep, it stays on top of the water! Like ships do, perhaps – they contain so much air that they float in spite of their weighty metal frame.

If you compare bouncing a regular rubber ball to bouncing Silly Putty shaped into a ball off a hard and smooth surface, the Silly Putty ball will practically always bounce better. Here’s a secret – if you put the ball of Silly Putty in the freezer for an hour then it’ll improve how it bounces. Not just joi de vivre but bounce de vivre.

Fancy amazing your friends and family? Roll some Silly Putty into a ball and place it on a hard and smooth surface. Give the friend or family member a heavy object such as a rubber mallet and challenge them to flatten the Silly Putty by hitting it with the heavy object. Watch as their attempts continue to fail. Once they’ve given up and accepted defeat, show them how it’s done – press slowly on the Silly Putty ball with a finger. See the shock and amazement of your friends and family as they notice that you’ve flattened it with ease! You, too, will feel stricken with wonder. Have you become an illusionist worthy of the stage? Could it be that you are the next Derren Brown?

Wanna stretch the Silly Putty? Pull slowly, so that it stretches without breaking. If the silly putty is pulled hard and quickly, it’ll snap off because it’s acting more like a solid.

Simply shape the Silly Putty into anything you wish. But note that it will slowly flatten with gravity, as the warmer the temperature, the faster the “flow” (that is to say the silly putty will flatten more quickly).

The history of silly putty

One day in 1943, a Scottish engineer called James Wright was trying to make synthetic rubber substitutes for the Second World War. He threw a gooey substance, the combination of boric acid and silicone oil which had become polymerised, on the floor. Thus, bouncing putty was made. Despite samples sent worldwide to try and find a practical use, yet none could be found.

Eventually, in 1949, bouncing putty appealed to Ruth Fallgatter, the owner of the Block Shop toy store, New Haven. She contracted Peter Hodgson, the marketing consultant, to produce her catalogue. Bouncing putty was a huge success, outselling every catalogue item except for a box of Crayola crayons.

Although this was a fine result, Fallgatter was disinterested in the further marking of it – but Hodgson didn’t give up. He borrowed money to buy a batch of the gooey substance. After various options of what to call it, he decided on Silly Putty. He was determined to market Silly Putty and did not back down, even though nearly all toy marketers advised him to give up.

Five years later, 1955, silly putty was marketed at children instead of adults. In 1977, a year after Hodgson died, Binney and Smith, maker of Crayola products, acquired the rights to Silly Putty. 2000 AD marked the 50th anniversary of Silly Putty, and so this year of 2010 is the 60th anniversary!

Silly putty science

Silly putty may live up to its name but there is science behind its nonsense.

Silly Putty is a dilatent compound. This means that it will react differently to hard and fast pressure than it does to slow and even pressure.

Also, Silly Putty is a viscoelastic. liquid meaning that it has a thick, sticky consistency between solid and liquid, and shows elastic behaviour when deformed.

Silly Putty is a polymerised substance, and there are covalent bonds within the polymer but hydrogen bonds between the molecules. With the slow application of small amounts of stress to the Silly Putty, a few of the bonds will be broken and this allows the putty to “flow” or flatten. Whereas with the quick application of more stress, many bonds will be broken which causes the Silly Putty to tear.

Now that you have studied silly putty’s quirks, you are its master. It is yours to command.