Who Invented WD-40?
There’s an old engineer’s adage that goes: “If it moves but shouldn’t, use duct tape. If it doesn’t move but should, use WD-40.” For nearly 60 years, WD-40, the iconic “toolkit in a can,” has been helping amateurs and professionals alike out of all sorts of sticky mechanical jams. In addition to its intended purpose as a penetrating lubricant and anti-corrosion agent, thousands of other uses have been claimed for this miracle liquid, from removing chewing gum, crayon, and tape residue to repelling insects, attracting fish, and even treating arthritis. But can WD-40 really do all the things people claim? Who came up with this product, and what is even in those distinctive blue and yellow cans? And, most importantly, what does “WD-40” even stand for anyway? As it turns out, the world’s favourite multi-purpose spray has a surprisingly dark origin, one that dates back to the tensest days of the Cold War.
On October 4, 1957, the Soviet Union launched Sputnik 1, the world’s first artificial satellite. In the United States, this feat was met with panic and dread. In addition to dramatically showcasing Soviet technological superiority, the little silver ball orbiting the earth represented a genuine existential threat, for the same R-7 rocket that had carried Sputnik into orbit could just as easily drop a nuclear bomb anywhere in the continental United States with almost no warning. In response, the U.S. could only field a handful of medium-range ballistic missiles like the Redstone, Thor, and Jupiter, which had to be based in foreign countries such as Britain and Turkey in order to reach targets in the Soviet Union.
Thankfully, however, a solution was in development: the SM-65 Atlas intercontinental ballistic missile. Designed by the Convair Corporation of San Diego, California, the Atlas was an advanced and innovative design, especially in the construction of its propellant tanks. In most rockets and missiles, the propellant tanks are separate components suspended within a rigid airframe. In the Atlas, however, the fuselage and tank walls were one and the same and made of extremely thin stainless steel. These so-called “balloon tanks” were kept rigid by the pressure of the propellants inside them; this made the Atlas extremely light and efficient for its size, but meant it had to be kept pressurized at all times or else it would collapse like a foil balloon.
The Atlas first entered service in 1959, eventually being deployed across 10 Air Force bases across the United States. As a strategic nuclear deterrent, these missiles spent the vast majority of their time sitting idle in their underground silos, exposing their stainless-steel skin to attack by corrosion. To ensure that the nation’s nuclear force would always remain in launch-ready condition, Convair began seeking a means of coating the Atlas’s skin and preventing the infiltration of moisture. Luckily, just such a product had recently been developed by a small local company.
In September 1953, a group of California-based engineers and chemists including Iver Norman “Norm” Lawson, Gordon Dawson, John Gregory, and Cyril “Cy” Irving came together to form the Rocket Chemical Company, initially headquartered in Chula Vista near San Diego. Shortly after the company’s founding, a U.S. Naval Commander and friend of the Lawson family asked Norm Lawson if he could develop a penetrating coating to protect machinery aboard naval ships from salt corrosion. Said coating, he explained, had to be stable and easy to store and apply. Lawson, who had a degree in mechanical engineering but not chemistry, nonetheless accepted the challenge, and – to the dismay of his family – set up a makeshift laboratory in his home garage at 1048 Myrtle Way in San Diego’s Hillcrest suburb. For months on end, Lawson experimented with dozens of mixtures of petroleum distillates, rejecting one formula after another as inadequate. Finally, on the 40th attempt, Lawson hit pay dirt: a concoction that efficiently displaced water from metal parts, lubricating them and protecting them from corrosion. Lawson turned over his formula to Rocket Chemical Company president Cy Irving, who dubbed it “WD-40” for “Water Displacement – 40th Formula.”
To test Lawson’s mixture, Irving took a sample to San Diego’s Embarcadero docks, a major repair hub for tuna fishing boats. There, he convinced Sam Crivello, owner of the tuna boat Sun Europa, to test out the new product. Crivello and Irving lifted the engine out of the Sun Europa, lowered it into the salt water, and left it overnight. The next morning, they doused the engine in WD-40 and – to their utter surprise and delight – it started up without issue. So impressed was Crivello by WD-40’s abilities that he offered to buy a 50% stake in the Rocket Chemical Company. He followed through on his promise, and was elected to the position of treasurer.
From the Embarcadero docks, word of the company’s incredible new product spread quickly throughout San Diego, eventually reaching the Convair Corporation, who began buying large quantities of WD-40 to protect the skin of their new Atlas missile from corrosion. It wasn’t long before engineers and mechanics at Convair began discovering new, unexpected uses for WD-40, from removing lipstick from collars to repelling ants. Perhaps inevitably, these employees began taking cans of WD-40 home with them to tackle all sorts of domestic tasks. Recognizing a potentially huge domestic market for their first – and thus far only – product – in 1958 the Rocket Chemical Company made WD-40 available for private purchase in San Diego. From here, business accelerated at a rapid pace, with the company moving into a 3,500-square foot plant in on Alvarado Canyon Road and expanding its distribution across the United States and even overseas to Latin America, Australia, and Japan. A large part of this success was thanks to a change of packaging. While initially WD-40 was packaged in regular metal tins, in 1958 then-company president Norman Larsen hit upon the idea of offering the product in aerosol spray cans, allowing it to be more easily applied to a wide variety of surfaces. By September of that year, the Rocket Chemical Company was turning out nearly 8,000 spray cans every day, while WD-40 was carried in over 500 hardware stores throughout San Diego.
But it was two major world events which caused WD-40’s sales to truly go through the roof. The first was Hurricane Carla, which for 14 days in September 1961 pounded southern Texas and Louisiana, causing widespread flooding. In response, the Rocket Chemical Company shipped 36,000 pounds of WD-40 to the Gulf Coast to help restore flood-damaged emergency vehicles and other vital equipment. Three years later in 1964, the United States began escalating military operations in Vietnam, sending countless tons of corrosion-prone equipment into an extremely hot and humid environment. One soldier who brought along a can of WD-40 to protect his rifle from corrosion wrote to the Rocket Chemical Company claiming that their product had saved his life. In July of that year, the company received an official government order for 233,000 aerosol cans and 300 55-gallon drums of WD-40 for use in Vietnam – their largest contract so far. By 1966, the company had moved once again to a new 6,000 square foot plant on Napa street, and sales of WD-40 had reached nearly $5 million per year – a nearly 1500-fold increase in less than a decade.
But in one of history’s unfortunate twists of fate, the man behind the endlessly versatile WD-40 formula would not share in his creation’s extraordinary success. When Norman Lawson submitted his winning 40th formula to Cy Irving, he was rewarded with a bonus of $500 – equivalent to just over $5000 today. However, he received no company stock or other benefits, and thus received no part of WD-40’s extraordinary profits. More tragically still, in official accounts of the creation WD-40, Lawson’s name was mixed up with that of company president Norman Larsen, leading to Larsen being credited with the invention of WD-40 and Lawson being effectively erased from history. Iver Norman Lawson died in 1967 at the age of 75, his historic contributions all but forgotten.
Meanwhile, the Rocket Chemical Company continued to go from strength to strength on the legendary versatility of its first – and only – product. In 1969, the company officially changed its name to “The WD-40 Company, Inc.” for the simple reason that – in the words of then-company president John Barry:
“We don’t make rockets.”
Barry, who joined the company the same year it changed its name, is a legendary figure in the history of WD-40, considered instrumental in the brand’s enduring ubiquity and success. Barry’s major contribution was to focus the company’s marketing on WD-40’s extraordinary versatility, turning it from a specialty product for the armed forces and aerospace industry into a ubiquitous household product found in nearly every toolbox and kitchen drawer around the world. To this end, Barry ensured that WD-40 was carried not only by hardware and automotive stores but grocery stores and corner stores as well, explaining:
“It is a numbers game—the more shelves we’re on, the better the chance a buyer will pick us up—whether it’s in hardware or sporting goods.”
He also encouraged customers to write in with unusual household uses for the product, which were then rolled into the company’s advertising campaigns. By the 1970s, this list of non-standard applications had grown into the thousands, and included – but were not limited to *deep breath*:
-Loosening stuck zippers
-Removing crayon, lipstick, and duct tape residue
-Protecting silverware from tarnishing
-Keeping pigeons off balconies
-Treating ant stings
-Untangling jewelry chains
-Cleaning stainless steel
-Hiding cracks in ceramic and marble floors
-Lubricating children’s playground slides
-Restoring leather furniture
-Lubricating artificial limbs
-Restoring flooded automotive distributor caps
-Keeping bathroom mirrors from fogging
-Stopping squirrels from climbing bird feeder poles
-Removing scuff marks from linoleum floors
-…and treating arthritis pain
Most of these uses have actually been tested and confirmed by the WD-40 Company – particularly those related to lubrication, cleaning, and preventing corrosion. Indeed, one of the largest-scale applications of the product is protecting sections of the Statue of Liberty in New York City from the elements. However, the Company strongly discourages more unusual uses of its product such as treating ant stings, attracting fish, and treating arthritis on account of WD-40’s toxicity.
…which begs the question: what is actually in the little blue and yellow can that can? Alas, Iver Lawson’s original formula was never patented, meaning that for 60 years the exact composition of WD-40 has remained a closely-guarded trade secret. Only a handful of company employees are privy to the secret, the WD-40 concentrate is only blended in four factories in California, Louisiana, the United Kingdom, and Australia, and since 2018 Lawson’s original hand-written notes have been securely locked up in a San Diego bank vault. This secrecy has inevitably led to rampant speculation as to the miracle spray’s composition, with the most commonly-circulated theory being that the main ingredient of WD-40 is fish oil. Other, more outlandish theories posit that the spray’s distinctive smell comes from the vanilla extract vanillin and that the secret formula contains – among other things – the goop from lava lamps and even sea otter semen. The truth, however, is rather more mundane, with the official Material Safety Data Sheet or MSDS for WD-40 listing the basic ingredients as:
45–50% low vapor pressure aliphatic hydrocarbons
<35% petroleum base oil
<25% high vapour pressure aliphatic hydrocarbons
2–3% carbon dioxide as a propellant
In 2009, WIRED magazine sent a sample of WD-40 to a lab for chemical analysis, and discovered that the “secret sauce” is composed mainly of petroleum distillates including decane, nonane, tridecane, undecane, tetradecane, dimethyl naphthalene, cyclohexane, mineral oil – no fish oil or otter semen in sight. These ingredients make perfect sense given WD-40’s abilities: mineral oil is a proven lubricant, nonane displaces water, and decane, tridecane, and undecane protect the mixture from freezing at low temperatures. The latter compounds are also found in the pheromones secreted by cockroaches, ants, and the red-banded stink bug, possibly accounting for WD-40’s distinctively sweet smell. However, the exact proportions of ingredients used in WD-40 remains known only to its manufacturers, ensuring WD-40’s ongoing success.
And what success it has been. In 2021 the WD-40 Company, which employs nearly 500 employees worldwide and sells its products in 176 countries, posted net earnings of $70.2 million, while over the past decade its stock has gone up nearly 200% – more than twice the growth of the benchmark Standard & Poor 500 stock index. And in recognition of the company’s major contributions to the aerospace industry, in 2014 WD-40 was inducted into the San Diego Air & Space Museum’s International Air & Space Hall of Fame. All this despite the fact that the company’s flagship product has remained virtually unchanged for nearly 60 years – with one notable exception. Ironically, due to a 2013 California Air Resourced Board ruling requiring all aerosols to contain 25% or less volatile organic compounds, WD-40 cannot be sold in the state of its creation in its original formulation. For this reason, regular cans of WD-40 sold in the remaining 49 U.S. states and around the world are labeled “not for sale in California.”
This does not mean, however, that there have been no changes at WD-40. In 2003, the company introduced the “Big Blast” nozzle to allow their product to be more efficiently applied to large areas, while in 2005 it rolled out cans with a permanently-attached flip-up “Smart Straw”, finally solving customers’ number-one complaint: losing the little red applicator straw. The company has also attempted to diversify its product line, launching a variety of products including specialty WD-40 formulations for use on machine tools and motorcycles; 3-in-One lubricating oil; Lava hand soap; Spot Shot carpet cleaner; and 2000 Flushes toilet cleaner. However, the vast majority of the company’s profits still come from Iver Lawson’s original secret formula with a thousand uses – a testament to the power of a good product marketed well.
So the next time you reach for a can of WD-40 to loosen a stuck bolt, lubricate your bike chain, get incriminating lipstick off your shirt collar or – if you are so inclined – free up an arthritic joint, remember that the miracle liquid in your hand owes its existence to the very real threat of nuclear annihilation. Now there’s a thought even WD-40 can’t unstick from your mind.
If you liked this article, you might also enjoy our new popular podcast, The BrainFood Show (iTunes, Spotify, Google Play Music, Feed), as well as:
- How WD-40 Got Its Name
- Silly Putty was Invented by Accident
- The 12 Best Ways to Remove Stripped Screws
- The Real Q from James Bond and the Ingenious Inventions
- Accidental Invention Week Part Two
Peltz, James, Q&A: WD-40 CEO Garry Ridge Explains Company’s Slick Success, Los Angeles Times, July 30, 2015, https://www.latimes.com/business/la-fi-qa-wd-40-20150730-story.html
Engstrand, Iris, WD-40: San Diego’s Marketing Miracle, Journal of San Diego History, http://sandiegohistory.org/sites/default/files/journal/v60-4/v60-4engstrand.pdf
Mikkelson, David, Can WD-40 Really Do All That? Snopes, January 2, 2007, https://www.snopes.com/fact-check/household-uses-for-wd-40/
Fascinating Facts You Never Learned in School, WD-40, https://www.wd40.com/history/
About Us, WD-40, https://wd40.co.uk/about-us/
Di Justo, Patrick, What’s Inside WD-40? Superlube’s Secret Sauce, WIRED, April 20, 2009, https://web.archive.org/web/20140119014037/http://www.wired.com/science/discoveries/magazine/17-05/st_whatsinside
The Story Behind WD-40, Petroleum Service Company, March 20, 2017, https://petroleumservicecompany.com/blog/story-behind-wd-40/
Buck, David, The Can That Always Can, Tedium, November 26, 2021, https://tedium.co/2021/11/26/wd-40-chemical-history/
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