Silly Putty

Silly Putty, a high viscosity, polymerized silicone oil, was invented at General Electric in the 1940’s, but not put to any practical use. Later in the 1950’s, the Arnold Clark Company started selling it as a novelty toy and by the 1960’s it was a very well known and popular product.

In the late 1960’s, General Electric decided to enhance traditional Silly Putty by making a glow-in-the-dark version. Basically what they did was add a chemical phosphor to the putty. This phosphor (zinc sulfide?) was a material that emitted light over a long period of time after being initially excited by being exposed to light.

In 1969, I was working as a student intern at General Electric’s Silicone Products Department plant in Waterford New York, where the chemists were developing the exact formula and process for making this new material.

It was my job as a Production Engineer to oversee the production line for different products. I was given various responsibilities, but as a student, I had not yet been given full responsibility for any specific situation.

When the General Electric chemists finally decided that they had the process worked out, my boss called me into his office and told me that I would be in total charge of the production of the first batch of this new material. I was, of course, ecstatic. Not only would I be completely in charge for the very first time, but also it was going to be for such a “revolutionary and important” new product as Glow-In-The-Dark Silly Putty.

I studied the process plan, organized the production workers, prepared the equipment and oversaw the careful production of the first commercial batch of this product.

Glow-In-The-Dark Silly Putty was very exciting and the whole plant knew what we were doing, so as soon as the batch was done, people from all over the plant descended on the tank and took some of the material for a souvenir to take home to show their friends and family.

Due to this “sampling”, the production process, which should have resulted in over 100 pounds of the material, was left with a final reportable amount of less than 5 pounds.

It was then that I discovered the reason I was given the great honor of being the official Production Engineer for this first batch. At General Electric, all the Production Engineers are evaluated on how well they are able to produce material. The production yields for all the processes they oversee become a permanent part of their job record. The other engineers knew that the first batch of this Glow-In-The-Dark Silly Putty would suffer huge sampling losses and no one wanted that incredibly low yield to be on their record. So they gave the job to the one person who wouldn’t be smart enough to know any better – me.


Just for the record, the official yield on that job was 4.3%, which was the lowest yield on any production job in the history of that plant and maybe for all of General Electric as well.