Wednesday, December 13, 2006

Silly String - Practice, not Theory

If I'd given a nano-second of thought to Silly String at all, I would have lumped it in with all those other useless products that are ceaselessly developed and churned out to fuel the insatiable consumer maw of the American economy. I'll do a round-up of my favorites at some other point, and I feel a special post coming on about the GPS parking-space locator that I read about over the weekend.  Silly String by no means stands alone. And it probably wouldn't even make it to the pantheon of useless-inventions-that-have-become-big-products.

And if I'd given Silly String another nano-second of thought, I would have compared it unfavorably (from a grown-ups perspective) to the Silly Putty of my childhood. Silly Putty: creativity-inspiring, lasts forever-never runs out. Silly String: used as a weapon, leaves unpleasant, lurid-colored goop that has to be cleaned up, built-in-obsolescence-in-a-can. (Of course, from a kid's perspective, Silly String is infinitely superior for the exact same reasons why I find it annoying and uninspiring.)

Then I read the AP story about how Silly String is being put into practice in Iraq, used to find the trip wires that trigger bombs.

Before entering a building, troops squirt the plastic goo, which can shoot strands about 10 to 12 feet, across the room. If it falls to the ground, no trip wires. If it hangs in the air, they know they have a problem. The wires are otherwise nearly invisible.

A New Jersey mother with a son in Iraq was tipped off about this, and she's organized a Silly String airlift. 

This was just one of the "boots on the ground" innovations that the article also mentioned, including using a tampon to stuff a bullet hole, and putting condoms over rifle muzzles to keep the sand out.(This battle-field improv is nothing new, of course. I read a book about WWII that partially attributed Allied victory over German to the tinkering and ingenuity of rank-and-file GI problem solvers. I can't recall all of their work-arounds, but one was something ingenious they did to cut through the hedgerows in Normandy.)

 Whatever your feeling is on the war in Iraq - bad idea, bungled from the outset, get out now; OK idea, botched operation, get out soon; brilliant idea, we're winning, stay the course - there is, in general, genuine sympathy with/concern for the troops - it's good to know that some lives will be saved by something as silly a Silly String.


Charles Green said...


Love the silly string thing.

Another example of innovative used by the military is the story of the
development of sanitary napkins.

During WWI, Kimberly Clark had been
engaged to develop a new absorbent gauze, which was responsible for saving tens of thousands of lives (since death by bleeding had previously been a major cause of casualties.

A year or so after the war ended, some executives noticed that they were still selling the gauze. You guessed it, Army nurses were quietly using the stuff. Once they found this out, you can imagine the execs' eyes lighting
up (half the world, more than a dozen times a year, do the math...)

What they didn't count on was the marketing challenge. How do you sellsomething that no one can talk about, that you can't advertise, that you can't clearly package, and that no one in fact will even ask for?

After several years of failure, they finally came up with the answers.

Plain brown-paper packages, sited at the front end of the cashier register,clearly priced, so that no words need be exchanged-simply a discrete nudge of the package from the front of the counter toward the cashier.

Arguably the biggest marketing challenge of all time.

Maureen Rogers said...

And a grateful nation of women thanks the inventor.