Thursday, 9 June 2016

Day 4 - An Interesting Snippet of History

The Glue Used on Post-It Notes

The discovery of the glue that is used on Post-It Notes is an excellent example of serendipity (when something is discovered by accident). I found out this story during my brief career as a scriptwriter and occasional presenter on 'The Big Toe Radio Show' and Go4It' - two children's BBC radio programmes. Sadly children's radio no longer exists.

So here's the script that I wrote (and recorded for broadcast on Radio 4) on the discovery of the glue used in Post-It Notes.

Imagine that you are the head of a huge company that makes all kinds of different glue. The glue that you get in pots, on the back of sticky tape or in sticks, clear or white glue. Any kind of glue. Anything that sticks something to something else. One day one of your scientists, who is always researching into finding different kinds of glue for different kinds of jobs, walks into your office. He’s discovered a completely different type of glue. Something that nobody has ever made before. He sounds excited and you’re getting excited too. Maybe this glue is going to be a real seller. So you ask him to tell you what this glue can do. “Well”, he says, “it’s a really weak glue that can barely stick two things together. You can pull it off really easily. It never dries like all other glues do so that it will never stick permanently. It’s the world’s weakest glue”.

All of a sudden you’re a little less enthusiastic about the whole thing. You can’t stick anything together with it because it will just come apart again as soon as you pull it. It’s very weak and it never dries. What use is something like that? Yet this glue is now used in just about every home, school and office and it’s hard to imagine life without it. It’s the glue that used on the back of Post-It notes and it was discovered completely by accident. It all began in 1968 when a scientist called Dr. Spencer Silver was working for an American company called 3M in the Research and Development Department. People in research look for new inventions and discoveries and people who work in development try and find ways to make this discovery or invention useful. Dr Silver was looking for a way to improve and strengthen the glue that is used on sticky tape, particularly the ones used in industry and hospitals. It was during one of his experiments that he accidentally discovered a glue that didn’t really stick to anything but remained sticky no matter how many times that it was used. It was certainly no use for using on the back of sticky tape, which was what he was originally looking for. Silver knew that he had invented a very unusual glue but he couldn’t think of a use for it.

Over the next few years he gave lots of demonstrations of the glue to all sorts of people in his company. Once he even packaged it in a spray can to see if that would help. Everybody who saw it thought that it was very interesting but nobody knew what to do with this funny glue. Then came a bit of divine inspiration. In 1973, nearly five years after the glue was first invented, 3M got a new manager for developing new products. Again Dr. Silver gave a demonstration of his glue. Watching the demonstration was somebody called Art Fry. Again everybody, including Art Fry, said “very interesting, but we just can’t find a use for it”. A few days later Art Fry was singing in his church choir and was getting very frustrated. He was using little bits of paper as bookmarks in his hymn book but they kept on falling out and he was losing his place in the book. He was listening to what he called “a very dull sermon” and his mind wandered off in a different direction. It was then that he had this sudden flash of inspiration. He remembered the strange glue that Dr Silver had demonstrated at work. All that was needed was to put on a bit of this new glue on a bit of paper and it would act like a sticky bookmark that you could use again and again without damaging the pages of the book. 

Very soon Art Fry had created a new sticky bookmark and gave them to people in his office. A short time after he had to get somebody’s opinion about a report that he had written, so he used one of his sticky bookmarks and drew an arrow on it pointing to a bit of information. He also wrote a question on the bookmark. When he got the reply he found that it had been written on the same sticky bookmark and attached to the report. It was quickly realised that they hadn’t invented a sticky bookmark but a whole new way for people to communicate with each other. How useful is that? Well, it took Art Fry over 18 months to convince people at 3M that these sticky notes were useful and were worth making and selling. “After all”, they argued, “nobody has ever asked us for sticky notes”. Just a little bit of testing with people in offices showed that we were wrong and suddenly they were asking for Post-It Notes. They were more than asking for them. They were pleading for them. They were as useful in the office as the stapler, the photocopier or the pen.

Now you find Post-It Notes everywhere and the chances are that you have used them yourself. And the next time that you do, remember that the whole thing was a complete accident. Nobody was looking for this glue but they just tripped over it. And if it had not been for a singer in a choir who had to listen a very boring sermon then the idea that eventually led to the Post-It Note might never have appeared.

1 comment:

  1. Derivation of the word 'serendipity' does fit the story but not as defined. It was when three princes set out in a fairy tale written methinks by Horace Walpole. They were searching for their future fortune & fame, but instead came back to Serendip happily ever after (!) each with a princess to love and marry. So, it's finding something accidentally or not, that is of different and greater value than originally desired in their respective quests. Here endeth the pedant's bit.