For the past couple of weeks, the geekiest corners of the web have been gawking at a strange but simple new phenomenon: magnetic putty. It's like Silly Putty but infused with millions of black iron oxide particles that make the putty stick to magnets. Imagine that game where you draw the mustache on the cartoon dude with iron filings using a pen with a magnet on the end. This is sort of the three-dimensional version of that. However, the properties of the putty itself produce some pretty hypnotizing slash horrifying results.
This video is cheesy, but it shows off the basic things that the magic magnetic putty can do:
I know what you're thinking. There's got to be a more useful application for magnetic putty than nerdy YouTube videos, right? Well, not at first glance, but remember that Silly Putty was not just invented to be a toy. During World War II, there was a race between the Allies and the Axis powers to come up with ways to make synthetic rubber so that they could keep boots on troops and tires on trucks. Up 'til then, rubber came from trees. Really!
Like the 3M's amazing always sticky adhesive before it — which is now used on the back of Post-It notes — the discovery of Silly Putty was an accident. When experimenting with different proportions of silicone polymers, some scientist happened upon a compound that was both solid and fluid and stick and bounce at the same time. (For you chemistry nuts out there, it's just boric acid combined with silicone oil.)
Crayola, the company that now owns the trademark on Silly Putty, says that it was created by Scottish inventor James Wright, but others dispute that claim. Either way, a toy store owner borrowed money in 1949 to buy a batch of the putty, divided it up into globs that went in plastic eggs, called it "Silly Putty" and made a whole lot of money. It's since been used not only as a toy but also as an adhesive, notably by astronauts in space.
So now you know the brief history of Silly Putty. What's this got to do with magnetic Silly Putty? It depends on how you feel about happy accidents. For now, the magnetic putty, like its predecessor, is largely used for fun. You can make it at home, and if you've got a camera that can handle stop motion photography, it's easy to put together mini monster movies using nothing but putty and magnets. This new Vimeo joint is my favorite:
There is more to it, though. Magnetic putty has become a staple in all kinds of scientific research in recent decades. It's mostly useful in squeezing a magnetic substance like iron into hard-to-reach spaces like underwater crevices and, as I suggested above, space. This 1997 experiment, for instance, used magnetic putty to pull unknown magnetic particles out of the ocean. Looking ahead, there's a burgeoning interest in using magnetic putty to better understand rare Earth metals and superconductors, the substances that are sure to usher in an entire new era of innovation. (Watch some magnetic putty swallow a rare Earth metal below.)
But it's still a pretty sweet toy, for now. If you want to make your own cheesy YouTube video, there's no need to buy the overpriced versions of the putty you see online. Just make it yourself — Instructions are here. And like the original Silly Putty, try not to eat this stuff. It probably won't kill you, but it will definitely ruin your day.