The Silly Putty Smackdown: Wright vs Warrick
The inventor of Silly Putty probably didn’t find the substance that silly. Not only did he not make any money off of it, he doesn’t even get a clean claim at the invention: at least two men have insisted it was his happy accident that resulted in the toy.
The Wright story – the one that seems to be most widely accepted, probably thanks to Crayola’s endorsement – goes something like this:
When rubber became a rationed material during WWII, inventors scrambled to try to find a suitable substitute. General Electric engineer James Wright experimented until he came up with a combination of boric acid and silicone oil that resulted in a goo 25 percent bouncier than real rubber. It could also stretch further and handle extreme weather conditions. You’ve probably noticed that tires aren’t made out of Silly Putty these days, though – that’s because the toy lacked certain properties to make it a true replacement for rubber. Although Wright sent samples of the stuff to many of his scientist buddies, none of them could come up with a good use for it, though they were intrigued. The samples made their rounds; eventually a chunk found its way into the hands of Ruth Fallgatter, a toy store owner. It was in her shop that marketer Peter Hodgson first spotted what was then called “nutty putty.” After selling some in a test market, Hodgson became convinced it would make him a millionaire. It did. It was selling modestly until The New Yorker waxed poetic about it – after that, Hodgson received a quarter of a million orders in just three days.
That makes Wright sound like the undisputed inventor, but a man named Earl Warrick also staked his claim on the stuff.
Earl Warrick’s story sounds a lot like James Wright’s, actually. Rubber, rationing, not-quite-right formula… but Warrick worked for Dow Corning, not General Electric. And Warrick called his accidental creation “bouncing putty,” not nutty putty. And other than those elements, the rest of the story is, according to the New York Times, exactly the same: Peter Hodgson later discovered Silly Putty in a toy store and ran with it. Warrick and his boss, Rob Roy McGregor, do seem to have Wright beat on the patent by about four years. See for yourself:
Warrick and McGregor’s patent
A third possible inventor named Harvey Chin is occasionally mentioned but doesn’t appear to have much information attached to the claim.
There’s no doubt that GE and Dow were probably both feverishly working to find a rubber replacement – a successful one would have been quite profitable, of course. And it seems plausible that two people could have independently come up with the formula around the same time frame. Either way, neither of the inventors got to retire early because of the deal: marketer Peter Hodgson is the one who got rich from the rubber substitute mistake.
Just for fun, here’s what happens when you drop 50 pounds of silly putty off of a building.