The Schenectady Silly Putty Mystery

Silly Putty Exhibit

It first bounced in Schenectady... we're pretty sure.

By Liz Clancy Lerner

Remember Silly Putty? The rubbery stuff, in the egg?

It stretches, it bounces, it copies pictures out of comic books.

Yeah, that stuff.

It was invented in Schenectady!

Unless it wasn't.

But it probably was.

Like most stories of invention, the one behind Silly Putty has its competing claims. But a new exhibit at the Schenectady Museum traces the wonderful rubbery substance to a failed experiment at a GE lab in Schenectady.

The History

Silly Putty ExhibitIt all started when GE researcher James Wright incorrectly labeled a chemical during an experiment in the 1940s.

Wright was working on creating a synthetic rubber. During World War II, the US feared being cut off from natural rubber supplies in Japan. They needed rubber to make tires, boots and gas masks, so GE and other research companies went to work on a rubber substitute.

As the story goes, Wright incorrectly labeled an ingredient, and the substance he created bounced when it accidentally landed on the floor. He sent the new substance to other engineers to see if they could find use for it.

Eventually it made its way to a toy store owner -- Ruth Fallgatter -- in New Haven, Connecticut. The idea for the egg shaped container came from a marketer, Peter Hodgson, who had a lot to do with the toy's early success.

The Controversy

Silly Putty says that Wright was the actual inventor, but where it was discovered is the fact that's fuzzy. The company claims Wright was in New Haven at the time of the discovery.

Schenectady says it was discovered here, at GE Research.

Chris Hunter, the curator at the Schenectady Museum says they verified Schenectady's claim in a variety of ways: They referenced articles from the time period. They found information in a 1960s book, Silicones Under the Monogram, that supported the Schenectady story, and they obtained anecdotal reports from locals living in the area at the time that Wright lived in the area (and that kids living in GE's surrounding neighborhoods would get samples of the bouncy putty).

And New Haven doesn't seem to be staking a claim to the stretchable, moldable, bounceable substance. The New Haven Museum has a list of "New Haven Firsts" on its website, including the invention of the frisbee, phone book and tape measure. There's no mention of the putty. If something that fun came from your town -- wouldn't you tell people about it?

Fun facts about Schenectady's Silly Putty

+ From Schenectady to the moon -- Silly Putty traveled on Apollo 8.
+ Doctors and physical therapists use it for stress-reduction and p.t.
+ According to Dr. Joe Schwarcz' book The Genie in the Bottle, the idea for Disney's film Flubber (a remake of The Absent Minded Professor from 1961) is based around the experiments of scientists trying to make rubber-like substances in the 1940s and 50s
+ You can try to make a homemade version of Silly Putty with this recipe. Or you can buy it (and shatter it with a hammer, stretch it until it breaks, or a number of other fun activities) in the museum store at the Schenectady Museum
+ Always put your Silly Putty back in its egg. And remember there's nothing else like it.

Comments

That's pretty cool...or not so cool, depending on whichever version of the truth is, um, true. Personally, I'm rooting for Schenectady, cause it needs all the accomplishments it can get!

So...... is silly putty not on the market anymore? I loved that stuff ... Sunday Globe cartoons proved hours of entertainment! Didn't take much to entertain us in the 'old days'!

An interesting question. I've never heard anyone attribute Silly Putty to Schenectady before. A letter from Dr. Murray Berdick, a chemist present at the creation, to the New York Times in 1992 makes no mention of where the substance was invented, nor do several other NYT articles on its invention, though they all attribute it to a GE laboratory in 1943. One of the people named by Berdick, A.L. Marshall, was in Schenectady in at least at one point in his career.

An NYT article from 1987 says that "G.E. people used to take it to cocktail parties and joke about it. It was at one of those parties in 1949 that Peter Hodgson, a Connecticut marketing man, saw it." As he later formed his company in New Haven, that might argue for a CT origin.

A site called GEadventure.com, which claims to have some direct connection with GE, writes that Wright was working in the New Haven, CT lab when he accidentally created silly putty. (http://geadventure.com/2009/03/silly-putty/)

Fashion and Merchandising Fads, by Hoffmann and Bailey, claims that Hodgson "happened upon a blob of silicone that a chemist had left at a friend's home," and then had "some chemical engineers in Schenectady, New York produce a few trial batches."

Journalistic integrity tells me I can't tell you who I'm rooting for Donna, but I appreciate the comment ;)

They still sell it Carol, at least at the Schenectady Museum - probably at toy stores too but I haven't been to one in many years :)

CJ - great information. Thank you for sharing. We will get to the bottom of this! We have an email in to Crayola (who now owns Silly Putty) for some details on where they got their information. We contacted some folks at GE Research in Niskayuna and as of now, don't have a solid yes or no from them.

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