Famous Failures takes us on a comprehensive tour of humankind’s most confident leaps in the wrong directions. The column examines history’s greatest worsts, and gives Lasik to our cultural hindsight. In today’s case file, child’s play becomes anything but when an attempt to recreate an accident inadvertently creates the most no-nonsense knickknack ever known.
Some examples of Famous Failures in history are, in fact, inspiring tales of reaching for the stars and winding up with a fistful of valuable space debris. The discovery of the beloved children’s toy Silly Putty has become a legendary accident, the result of experiments with silicon polymers in pursuit of a viable replacement for rubber. Though not as useful as rubber, Silly Putty could bounce, stretch, change shapes, and, if you put it on a cubicle desk, it would say, “I can be a lot of fun outside of this office.” Its unexpected financial success as a toy resulted in years of legal battles over the patent, culminating in the legendary trial “Crayola v. ‘I Meant to Do That.’”
As the plaything became a worldwide phenomenon, its copyright grew amorphous while stretching and warping across greedy corporate hands. Many young upstarts attempted to recreate its chemical properties on their own to capitalize on the popularity. Ian Wetlander, a renowned Scottish scientist, heard tell of Silly Putty’s success in America, and in 1967 he moved his wife and child from his castle in Glasgow to a two-car garage in Mooresville, Ohio. Years of deliberate attempts at failure thwarted the brilliant Dr. Wetlander as he repeatedly, successfully created useful synthetic rubber alternatives instead of Silly Putty. His final effort, which he called “Enjoyable Rubber,” cost him the respect of his family when he tried to bounce it off a wall and wound up knocking out all of Ian Jr.’s remaining baby teeth.
Dr. Wetlander sold the patent for his reviled substance to local accountant Benjamin Haley Hendless. Hendless, a lifelong bachelor and reclusive Quaker, developed an ambition as an inventor around 1962 when he designed the Hendless Professional, an iron that could make his shirt collars uncommonly stiff for months on end.