Fascinating True Stories From the Flip Side of History

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Podcasting Since January 2008

The Flubber Fiasco – Podcast #16

The following is an excerpt from my second book, Lindbergh’s Artificial Heart: More Stories From The Flip Side of History.

Flub’ber (n.): from the term flying rubber.  A viscous, gooey, green blob that defies the laws of physics and makes basketball players bounce and cars fly.

So much for definitions.

Now, I’m sure that you have probably seen one of the Flubber movies.  This stuff was first “invented” by Fred MacMurray in the film The Absent-Minded Professor way back in March of 1961.  (Was this around the time that dinosaurs roamed the Earth?)  The movie made Disney so much money that it decided to make a sequel: Son of Flubber in 1963.  And, not to let a good thing die, Disney released Flubber in 1997, a remake starring Robin Williams.

All good movies today have tons of product tie-ins.  Remember the merchandising onslaught of The Lion King?  Lion King dolls.  Lion King drinking glasses.  Lion King clothing.  Lion King stickers.  Lion King…well, you get the idea.

Of course, the latest incarnation of Flubber was no exception to this marketing blitz.  Flubber seemed to be everywhere at just about the time Disney geared up to release its latest incarnation of the rubbery substance.

What few people know, however, is that there was a somewhat less successful tie-in attempted when Son of Flubber was released back in 1963.  In fact, it may possibly be one of the most bizarre stories in all of toy history.

The product, of course, was named Flubber, and it was marketed by a toy manufacturer know as Hassenfeld Brothers (better known today as Hasbro).  This particular formulation of Flubber was a mixture of rubber and mineral oil and had properties similar to that of Silly Putty.  In other words, it bounced like a ball and could make comic imprints.

The product was introduced in September of 1962 and Hasbro sold millions of units.  They advertised that “Flubber is a new parent-approved material that is non-toxic and will not stain”.

Advertisement for Hasbro's Flubber that appeared on page 18 of the March 18, 1963 publication of the Indianapolis Star.
Advertisement for Hasbro’s Flubber that appeared on page 18 of the March 18, 1963 publication of the Indianapolis Star.

But then, reports started to come back that some children were developing full-body rashes and sore throats from the product.  The Federal Food and Drug Administration (FDA) began investigating the product to see if these claims were true.

The big-wigs at Hasbro were mystified.  The product was supposed to be harmless and had passed all of their safety tests.

In March of 1963, a Kansas woman filed a $104,000 lawsuit against Hasbro, claiming that the Flubber had caused rashes so severe that both she and her three-year-old son required hospital care.

The company decided to retest the product.  Instead of testing it on kids, they ended up using volunteer prisoners as guinea pigs.  One prisoner developed a rash on his head.  Why he was rubbing Flubber on his head one will never know, but it became clear that there was a problem with the product.  It seems that the product could irritate the hair follicles in a very small percentage of the human population.

What to do?  What to do?

By May, over 1,600 complaints had been received.  (Although some were for similar products made by other companies.)  They had no choice but to issue a voluntary recall.  About three million Flubber balls were returned to the company.  Then came the big question:

Just what do you do with huge mass of reject Flubber?

The obvious answer was to incinerate it.  This seemed like a good idea until a huge black cloud was formed and blocked out the sun in the region surrounding the local incinerator.  While the Flubber would bounce, it was clear that it shouldn’t be burned.  Hasbro had a big mess on its hands.

And back to Hasbro the Flubber went…

It was decided that the balls should be trucked off and given a proper burial in the city dump.  This also seemed like a good idea until Hasbro received a call from city officials that kids were breaking into the dump and stealing it. 

And back to Hasbro the Flubber went…

Hasbro’s next step was to do something that would be highly illegal today.  It decided to dump the balls into a large northern New England lake.  Workers drove to the secluded lake and started to dump case after case of Flubber into the water.  They quickly learned that Flubber floats.  Two fishing schooners were rented and it took four days of “fishing” to catch the estimated 50,000 Flubber balls.

 And back to Hasbro the Flubber went…

Hasbro’s next solution was to bury the stuff in its own backyard.  The process was very simple:  1) Dig a big hole.  2) Pour in a truckload of Flubber.  3) Cover that with a truckload of sand.  4) Squash it all down with a steamroller.  5) Repeat steps 1 to 4 until all of the Flubber is buried.  The Flubber burial ground was then paved over and made into a corporate parking lot.

One would guess that this was the end of the Flubber fiasco, but it is not.

Fast forward thirty-five years or so to the present.  Hasbro employees claim that on a hot summer day the Flubber actually oozes up through the cracks in the parking lot pavement.  Probably just their imagination, but then this stuff did seem to take on a life of its own…

Useless?  Useful?  I’ll leave that for you to decide.

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