Engines of Our Ingenuity

No. 1903:
FLUBBER

by John H. Lienhard

Today, Flubber. The University of Houston's College of Engineering presents this series about the machines that make our civilization run, and the people whose ingenuity created them.

We've seen the relationship between movies and product-marketing steadily grow over the years. When Clark Gable took off his shirt in the movie It Happened One Night, back in 1934, he was wearing only his manly chest -- no undershirt. Two things happened as a result. First, the sales of undershirts sharply dropped in the United States. Second, advertisers sat up and took notice.

Movies and marketing have, ever since, developed a disturbing intimacy. One example is the display soft drinks and beer. Attractive actors smoking cigarettes has been as influential as Clark Gable's undershirtlessness, and far more destructive. Then there's the influence of movies on fashion -- like the Annie Hall look.

Movies have also driven countless new products, especially toys. Superhero dolls and Star Wars light swords, but nothing with as strange a history as Flubber. Flubber was invented onscreen by Fred MacMurray in the movie The Absent Minded Professor -- a kind of antigravity goo that gained energy with each impact. Flubber stood for flying rubber for, with it, you could fly.

When a sequel, Son of Flubber, was made two years later, the Hasbro Company created a new product called Flubber, for kids. It was reportedly made of rubber and mineral oil and it behaved a lot like Silly Putty. It stretched like bread dough when you pulled slowly, and resisted like rubber when you jerked it. It'd bounce if you dropped it, and it would transfer images from the comics.

Flubber was marketed as nontoxic and non-staining. But then, certain people's hair follicles proved to be allergic to it. It caused enough trouble that it had to pulled from the market. And here the fun begins. How to get rid of tons of Flubber balls?

When they tried to burn them, the nearby City of Providence, Rhode Island, complained of huge clouds of black smoke. Next they tried next to put the Flubber balls in the city dump. But kids turned up trying to steal them.

So they got permission to weight them down and sink them off the coast. But Flubber balls got loose and floated to the surface. The Coast Guard had to collect fifty thousand of them and return them to Hasbro. Finally, they buried their stock in an area near their factory and paved it over as a parking lot.

That worked for thirty-five years. Then employees began seeing Flubber rising like the undead through cracks in the pavement. That was just as Disney released a remake of the old movie. The 1997 movie Flubber was roundly panned by three quarters of the major reviewers. And, although neither reappearance was welcome, I can recommend one latter-day Flubber reincarnation.

A widely-circulated recipe tells children how to make their own Flubber-like material from water, white glue, and borax. When they're done, they'll be embryonic chemists who've made their own long-chain polymeric material. And they'll have made their own fun as well. I'll post a link on how-to-do-it, on the Engines web site.

I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston, where we're interested in the way inventive minds work.

(Theme music)


Among the many websites that tell the Flubber story, I recommend finding it on,
http://www.uselessinformation.org/
(This account is also included in the author's book: S. Silverman, Lindbegh's Artificial Heart, Kansas City: Andrews McMeel Publishing, 2003, pp. 3-5.)

You can find instructions on how to make your own Flubber-like material in the video below:

Or on this page: http://www.makingfriends.com/r_flubber.htm


The Absent-Minded Professor
Advertisement for the Disney Studios DVD release of The Absent-Minded Professor


The Engines of Our Ingenuity is Copyright © 1988-2003 by John H. Lienhard.