The 20 most fascinating accidental inventions

11. Silly Putty

Jacob Turcotte

You can stretch it. You can bounce it. You can throw it. 

The eraser-colored goo was not intended to become one of America’s favorite childhood toys, but actually a synthetic substitute for rubber during World War II. Rubber – used for tires, gas masks, life rafts, and boots – was essential for the war. With Japan attacking many rubber-manufacturing countries in Asia, America was in a pickle. Citizens were asked to donate any old tires, rain boots, coats, and anything else made of rubber.

But it still wasn’t enough. The government reached out to companies to invent a synthetic rubber with similar properties.

In 1943, James Wright, an engineer working for General Electric, entered the scene. Wright just happened to combine boric acid and silicone oil in one of his test tubes, creating the goo that would eventually fill hours of playtime.

The goo could rebound and stretch more than traditional rubber, had a very high melting temperature, and did not collect mold. Although the “nutty putty” didn’t contain the properties needed to replace rubber, Wright hoped there would be some conventional use for it.

However, the government was not interested. Wright sent samples of it to scientists around the country and they, too, were not interested. However, partygoers found the goo very entertaining.

In 1949, a second character entered the scene: the unemployed Peter Hodgson, who saw an opportunity. He borrowed $147 to buy the rights from GE and began producing the goo, which he renamed Silly Putty. He packaged it in plastic eggs because it was close to Easter.

Soon children across the country wanted Silly Putty. Kids could stretch and distort their favorite comic book heroes by slapping the putty down on printed pages. It became one of the fastest selling toys in America’s history.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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