A Silly Idea (The Origin of Silly Putty)

Everybody thought Peter Hodgson was crazy when he started selling what would come to be known as Silly Putty.

But the earnest entrepreneur knew exactly what he was doing when he put all his eggs in one basket.

An advertising copywriter, Hodgson could see the moldable material had an obvious use that even its inventor overlooked. That inventor was General Electric engineer James Wright who was searching for a wartime rubber substitute so the U.S. Army could stay supplied with boots and tires.

One day in 1943, Wright accidentally dropped some boric acid into silicone oil. To his surprise, it formed a compound that stretched further and bounced higher than rubber. It didn’t get moldy or decay like rubber, and it stayed strong and pliant, even in extreme temperatures. There was just one problem. Nobody in military or scientific circles could figure out what to do with the stuff which was similar to synthetic rubber already in use. G.E. even mailed samples to researchers around the world.

Peter Hodgson was at a party where one of those samples was being passed around and he noticed how much fun people were having with the mysterious material. In a flash of inspiration, he saw its potential as a toy. It just so happened the ad man was creating a catalogue for a toy company, so he convinced the client to include “Bouncing Putty,” which outsold almost everything else.

When the company wasn’t interested in staying with the product, Hodgson secured the rights and bought 21 pounds of the putty for $147. He hired a college student to cut it into one-ounce balls and put them inside plastic eggs, because it was almost Easter. Though it took a while for the marketing campaign to break out of its shell, a mention in The New Yorker magazine soon had Hodgson scrambling to keep up with 250,000 orders in just three days. Kids were especially fond of using the putty to lift impressions of their favorite comic strips.

By the end of the 50s, Silly Putty had sales of more than $6 million a year. Since then, 300 million eggs have sold — enough to make a ball the size of the Goodyear Blimp. Silly Putty has even been to space. In 1968, Apollo 8 astronauts used it to relieve stress and fasten down tools in zero gravity. Now, popular putty is owned by the parent company of Crayola, which makes 500 pounds a day. It comes in several shades, including glow-in-the-dark ones, and there’s even a Silly Putty that changes color, depending on hand temperature.

We, the pliant and sometimes puzzling people of God, are like Silly Putty. Most folks don’t quite know what to do with us. Though they’re often intrigued by our unique standard, we’re of little serious use to those with preconceived ideas about what we should be like in a world bent on winning. At best, we’re a novelty, a curiosity, quickly dismissed.

But in the eyes of the One who sees our full potential, our spiritual characteristics give us a versatility and value that comes of making small but memorable contributions to the lives of everyone into whose hands we place ourselves. When we’re stretched, or when we bounce back from abuse and adversity, we demonstrate the significance of faith, a faith that resists today’s moral mould and cultural decay. Amid the emotional extremes of searing passions and cold complacency, we maintain our essential nature, resistant only to the world’s seductive shaping. When we apply ourselves to the scriptures, we bear their impression for all to see.

Christians come in many colors but we’re all called to glow in the darkness of a distressed and distracted world. The best among us can respond to the spiritual temperature of those who mold us and still remain faithful to the Easter message that helps people identify what we are, prevents our faith from drying out, and keeps us pliant in the hands of Almighty God. Nothing silly about that.