In the middle of the second world war, James Wright was hard at work, trying to invent a synthetic rubber substitute. He was employed by the U.S. War Production Board who were very interested in cheaper options for rubber as the war had led to severe shortages.
World War II Innovations
During World War II, Japan invaded rubber-producing countries as they expanded their sphere of influence in the Pacific Rim. Rubber was vital for the production of rafts, tires, vehicle and aircraft parts, gas masks, and boots. In the U.S., all rubber products were rationed; citizens were encouraged to make their rubber products last until the end of the war and to donate spare tires, boots, and coats.
My dad would tell me stories of what it was like to be a kid during World War Two and the rationing of gasoline, food and especially rubber. He and his friends, as part of their Boy Scout Troop, would go door-to-door asking their neighbors to donate their old boots and tires so they could be used for the war efforts. My grandmother shared stories of growing her “Victory Garden” and then sharing the results with people who were struggling. Both my father and grandmother considered themselves lucky when compared to what others went through during the war.
As you can imagine, the pressure to come up with an alternative to rubber was intense. Hundreds of experiments were made in laboratories across the country. In one such experiment, Wright added boric acid to silicone oil and created a substance that stretched when pulled slowly, but snapped if pulled quickly. It bounced, had a high melting temperature and never became moldy. While the characteristics and properties were interesting, it was not a viable substitute for rubber.
Said another way — a total failure given the objective to find a viable substitute for rubber.
Wright knew he had created something interesting, but he could not find any practical use for it. He sent it out to other scientists to see if anyone else could think of something the substance would be good for.
Those that received those first samples went on shared them with others. Scientists sent samples to other scientists who then sent it on to others. All in the search to see if it had any practical use.
Unfortunately, while many people were intrigued, no practical uses emerged.
That was until one of the samples made it to a toy store owner who saw its potential as a toy.
An Unintended Consequence
That is how the unintended consequences of a failing to create a rubber substitute lead the toy store owner, Ruth Fallgattey, to market the bouncing putty by selling it in a clear case. Thus – Silly Putty was born.
Wright had the persistence necessary to pursue a failed idea. Even though he wasn’t sure what he had invented, he knew it must be something special.
We all can take a lesson from Silly Putty. When we are faced with an innovation failure, we should ask ourselves: How can you transform a failure and see new opportunities for it?
So did Wrights invention end at Silly Putty? No
After its success as a toy, other uses were found. In the home, its used to remove substances such as dirt, lint, pet hair, or ink from various surfaces.
The material’s unique properties also found niche use in medical and scientific applications. Physical therapists use it for rehabilitative therapy of hand injuries. A number of other brands (such as Power Putty and TheraPutty) alter the material’s properties to offer different levels of resistance.
Because of its adhesive characteristics, it was used by Apollo astronauts to secure their tools in zero-gravity and hobbyists found a use for the putty in the making of scale models.
What will they think up next?