Famous Failures

Serious Putty

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. He dreamed of making the Hendless family name a lasting presence in the community, creating something truly memorable and associating himself with it for all time. He hoped that this newly acquired putty patent would finally launch him into the public eye, but not so far into it that he’d have to meet new people or hold conversations.

Hendless lived his life quite inflexibly. Raised in a strict household, he had little interest in toys, which his father referred to as “hand-idlers.” He marketed his new product, then, as a mature and thoughtful alternative to the plaything and named it “Serious Putty.”

In his demonstrations across the Midwest, Hendless insisted upon the putty being applied only in serious situations, like mending a crack in a tombstone or sculpting respectful religious iconography. If pressed against paper and ink, Serious Putty could copy information off of business income tax forms for easy storage and record keeping. Its qualities as a thick adhesive made it ideal for instructing children in bricklaying, roof thatching, and window caulking. Children could learn valuable impulse-control skills, Hendless suggested, by staring at Serious Putty and refusing any urge to bounce, stretch, or otherwise play with it under threat of a time-out (which would, again, consist of sitting and staring at Serious Putty).

In the first decade of business, he moved units almost exclusively within his Quaker business meetings, in which he was moved by God to speak on behalf of his product and its practicality. His fellow Quakers would come to unity over the product, unanimously declaring it “the way forward, or at the very worst a lateral move.” Serious Putty’s popularity at these meetings waned over time, as their chemical consistency meant that one container of putty was often “more than enough.” In time, the Friends World Committee for Consultation ruled unanimously that sale, distribution, or otherwise mention of Serious Putty be stricken from Quaker meetings, citing “the priesthood of all believers over the entrepreneurship of one believer who shall remain nameless.”

Investors found Hendless’s counter-programming putty to be a tough sell, in part because of its confusing packaging that warned of “serious results from ingesting Serious Putty” and in part because, despite Hendless’s insistence otherwise, it was basically Rubber Cement, which was already well-represented on the marketplace. Hendless responded with a vicious one-man smear campaign against Rubber Cement, papering Ohio with fliers that read, “RUBBER? CEMENT? WHICH IS IT?” The campaign did not stick.

Discouraged from devoting years of his life to Serious Putty, Hendless gave in to the pressures of the toy industry and spent the last of his savings on re-packaging every container as “Trivial Putty, the Frivolous Waste for Children of Equal Use.”

In a desperate final move, Hendless converted his basement into a laboratory, buying chemistry sets on credit to pursue the accidental invention of an even newer toy. “Having no prior education or experience in chemistry,” Hendless says in the legible portions of the burnt remains of his journal, “I believe I’m set up to make even more accidents than anyone trained in the sciences.” The local newspapers described the disastrous Hendless Explosion of 1980 as being “untimely, avoidable, and ultimately quite silly.”

Eric Stolze writes ad copy, articles, and screenplays in Los Angeles.