Monday, March 16, 2009

Not So Silly After All

During World War II, the US War Production Board asked GE to synthesize a cheap substitute for rubber. James Wright developed smething out of boric acid and silicone oil and called it "nutty putty." Turns out it wasn't much of a substitute and it languished until 1949 when Paul Hodgson, a former ad agency executive who was running a toy shop in New Haven, saw a demonstration of it at a party.

Sensing a trend in the making, be bought 21 lbs. of it, hired a Yalie to separate all of that into half-ounce balls and to pack them inside hollow plastic eggs. He re-named it "Silly Putty" and it's been a popular toy for more than 50 years. More than 2 million are sold annually.

It's not "just a toy" -- because Silly Putty's specific gravity is similar to human flesh, Silly Putty is used to align and test CT scanners. It's used in physical therapy -- squeeze one for 10 minutes every day in each hand. Mental therapy, too -- the Apollo 8 astronauts played with it -- and used it to secure small parts to keep them from floating around. Smokers, trying to quit, find it gives them something to do with their hands.

In 1981, the Columbus Zoo people used it to take hand and footprints of their gorillas for educational purposes. Geology and astronomy professors are said to use it to demonstrate the gradual movement of large masses of Earth.

I googled "Silly Putty" and found 324,000 entries with 6,500 shops offering it at "competitive prices." even sells it! I noted several entries for "Make Silly Putty yourself!" which I emphatically do NOT recommend doing. Boric acid? Nuh-uh, don't want to mess with that stuff.

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