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Silly Putty proliferates at 40

Goofy, stretchy Silly Putty is lifting a page from Coca-Cola, whichbrought out Cherry Coke, Diet Coke and Diet Cherry Coke, and Fig Newtons, which branched out into Apple Newtons, Cherry Newtons and Blueberry Newtons.

After 40 years of nothing but your basic bloblike pinkish beige, Silly Putty is diversifying. It introduced four new colors here Monday at the American International Toy Fair.

The new Silly Puttys - blue, green, yellow and magenta - have the same taffy-like consistency as the original.

They all come in the same little plastic eggshells. They can all be pulled, pounded, pressed and molded like clay.

It has been 40 years since Silly Putty made its debut in toy stores, and its slide into middle age is a milestone that has its manufacturer, Binney & Smith Inc., boasting that it has been around longer than other toy classics like the Barbie doll, the Hula-Hoop or Slinky.

Binney & Smith, which also makes Crayola crayons, hopes the Crayolalike colors will increase Silly Putty's share of the toy market.

So far, 3,000 tons of Silly Putty have been sold - enough to fill

200-million plastic eggshells or circle the Earth at the equator three times. Without stretching.

Silly Putty is made and packed in a room a few steps from the crayon assembly line in Binney & Smith's factory in Easton, Pa. Huge mounds of Silly Putty piled on stainless-steel carts that are wheeled to a machine that slices off one-ounce chunks and plops them into the eggshells.

It is first and foremost a toy, but Peter C. Hodgson Jr., the son of the man who made Silly Putty a household staple, insists that Silly Putty has its serious uses.

Geologists use it in experiments to mimic the earth's crust, he says, and doctors use it in preparing patients for CAT scans because it has the specific gravity of human flesh.

In 1968, Silly Putty went to the moon in sterling silver eggs. The idea was to relieve boredom aboard Apollo 8 and help the astronauts batten down tools that would otherwise float through the weightless space capsule.

Silly Putty began as a nameless blob in a General Electric laboratory in New Haven in World War II.

An engineer, James Wright, mixed boric acid and silicone oil in a test tube. When he threw the gooey result on the floor, it bounced back.

No one knew what to do with it until Hodgson's father, a onetime

advertising copywriter, heard about it after the war.

Though he was $12,000 in debt, Peter C. Hodgson Sr. borrowed $147 for his first batch.

Working in an old barn in North Branford, Conn., he packed wads of the stuff into plastic eggs and shipped them off to the Neiman-Marcus department store in Dallas and to Doubleday bookshops around the country.

"It really has a sort of personality," the younger Hodgson said, "and it reflects your personality. I have a feeling as I watch kids play with it that a lot of what makes it work is that the stuff in the egg is only the half of it."