Who Invented Duct Tape?
It has a light side, it has a dark side, and it binds the universe together. No, I am not talking about the Force from Star Wars, but the handyman’s ultimate secret weapon: duct tape. Essentially a self-contained repair kit, this humble grey tape has seemingly endless applications. It can be used to bind wounds and cure warts; make clothing, shelters, and ropes; patch leaky boats and submarines; and has even saved the lives of astronauts in outer space. It is strong enough to suspend a car or restrain a bull elephant, yet can be easily torn with one’s bare hands. The sheer versatility of duct tape has is perhaps best encapsulated by the popular mechanic’s and engineer’s adage: if it doesn’t move but it should, use WD-40. If it moves but it shouldn’t, use duct tape. In a previous video, we looked at one half of the so-called “redneck repair kit”, exploring WD-40’s surprising origins as a compound for protecting nuclear missiles from corrosion and its evolution into a ubiquitous household product found in toolboxes and supply cupboards around the world. Today, we look at the other half, examining how a product designed for a mundane but vital task during the Second World War became one of the world’s most versatile and beloved tools.
Before we begin, it is important to note that considerable debate exists regarding the actual name of this ubiquitous grey tape, with some referring to it as “duct” tape and others as “duck” tape. Worldwide the preference appears to be for “duct tape”, and indeed one of the tape’s first commercial applications was for joining and sealing heating and cooling ducts. However, the debate is complicated by the fact that one of the world’s largest tape manufacturers, Manco Inc, brands its product as “duck tape”, complete with a duck mascot named Manco T. Duck. Indeed, the term “duck tape” far predates the the product we currently associate with the name, originally referring to plain strips of cotton duck cloth. First appearing in written records in 1899, duck tape was typically used to wrap electrical and structural cables to insulate or protect them from corrosion and damage. It was also commonly used for trimming dresses and other garments, constructing shoes and boots, and holding together the slats on Venetian blinds. Duct tape as we know it today is manufactured with a reinforcing backing of cotton duck cloth, an it is from this that the modern term “duck tape” is thought to originate. Or the name could have originated from the tape’s ability to repel water, as in the idiom “water off a duck’s back.” We will likely never know for sure. But we are getting ahead of ourselves, for in order to explore the origins of duct tape we must first take a look at the evolution of adhesive tape itself.
Today the idea of using flexible adhesive-backed tape for repairs might seem like an obvious and intuitive one, but like every other household product it had to be invented by someone. No one is quite sure who invented adhesive tape, but among the very first commercial versions was a surgical tape introduced by Johnson & Johnson in 1898 for binding wound dressings. By the 1910s, tradesmen could readily buy friction and electrical tape made of cotton or linen tape impregnated with a rubber-based adhesive. However, the first truly popular household adhesive tape would not appear until the 1920s, and its invention was intimately tied to the rise of a giant in innovative consumer products.
In 1902, five Minnesota businessmen came together to form the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company – better known as 3M. The company purchased a mine in order to extract the mineral corundum – used in the manufacture of sandpaper. Unfortunately, the mine failed to produce a profitable yield, causing the company to go bankrupt and be sold off. Lacking ready access to corundum, the new owners of 3M instead began importing a softer but cheaper abrasive mineral, garnet, from Spain. But despite nearly a decade of tireless research, the company struggled to find an adhesive that could adequately bind its garnet powder to a paper backing, leading to endless complaints from customers. All this would change in 1921 with the hiring of a scrappy young engineer named Richard Drew. Drew was the classic non-conforming misfit, expressing a profound disinterest in the traditional American workplace. For much of his teenage years Drew earned a living as a banjo player for various dance bands, eventually scraping together enough money to pay for an engineering degree at the University of Minnesota. After only 18 months, however, Drew dropped out of the program and turned instead to the local classified ads to find a job. Spotting an ad for 3M, Drew sent in a rather blunt and honest application letter and to his surprise was hired on the spot. But with no formal credentials to speak of, the 22-year-old Drew was relegated to the lower echelons of 3M and sent out to various auto body shops – the primary customers for 3M sandpaper – to test the company’s products in the field. And it was here that he made an important and highly-profitable discovery.
In the 1920s, two-tone paint schemes on cars were all the rage, but for those tasked with creating such schemes the painting process was an exercise in frustration. Painters masked the transition between the two paint colours using butcher paper, newspaper, and surgical tape. However, the tape’s adhesive tended to lift the paint off the car body, leading to an endless cycle of painting, sanding, re-masking, and re-painting. Drew immediately saw a golden opportunity: why not create a specialized masking tape with a milder adhesive that wouldn’t damage paint jobs? Suddenly inspired, Drew rushed back to the 3M labs and in his spare time experimented with various adhesive formulations based on vegetable oil, glycerine, and various resins. Drew became so absorbed by the project that he began to fall behind on his work, and was soon ordered by his superiors to abandon his efforts and return to his primary duties. Undeterred, Drew continued to pursue the project at home, and after two years of work finally came up with a formula that worked: thin strips of crepe paper coated in a mixture of cabinetmakers’ glue and glycerine that stuck firmly to many surfaces and created a crisp masked edge but could be easily peeled away without damaging the underlying paint. However, Drew’s supervisor William McKnight did not see the potential in the invention, and refused to pay for a machine to mass-produce the tape. But Drew, defiant to the end, refused to let the matter rest, and instead exploited a clever loophole to make his vision a reality. As a researcher, Drew was authorized to make purchases of up to $100. So he purchased the tape machine piece-by-piece in $99 instalments and assembled it itself. When McKnight eventually discovered what Drew was up to, instead of reprimanding the young engineer, he commanded him on his creativity and tenacity and introduced a managerial policy that would soon become a 3M trademark:
“If you have the right person on the right project, and they are absolutely dedicated to finding a solution – leave them alone. Tolerate their initiative and trust them.”
Meanwhile,Drew’s masking tape proved a hit among auto body painters, allowing elaborate paint schemes to be quickly and easily created. However, it still was far from perfect; early versions had adhesive applied to the edges but not the centre of the tape, frequently causing it to fall off the car body. During one field trial, an angry painted growled at Drew:
“Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!”
At the time, “scotch” was a slur meaning “cheap” or “stingy”. Nevertheless, the name stuck and was used by 3M to brand a wide variety of adhesive tape products – including Richard Drew’s next great invention. In 1927, rival manufacturer DuPont introduced Cellophane, a thin, transparent, and moisture-proof plastic sheeting which proved popular with bakers, grocers, and florists for wrapping their products and keeping them fresh. When customers began seeking a strong but aesthetically-pleasing means of securing and sealing cellophane-wrapped packages, Richard Drew invented the world’s first fully-transparent adhesive tape, which 3M launched in 1930 as “Scotch Tape”. The timing could not have been better. The Great Depression had created a culture of “make do and mend” in which cash-strapped people began repairing existing household products instead of buying new ones. Scotch Tape provide ideal for this task and virtually flew off the shelves, making 3M one of the few major companies to thrive during the Depression. As an official history of 3M explains:
“Almost daily, new ideas sprang up for using the tape to make old things do. It was used to mend book pages, sheet music, window curtains, and even small rips in clothing. Bankers used it to repair paper currency. Secretaries found it perfect for patching broken fingernails. Farmers discovered they could use it to seal cracked eggs. Housewives used it to cap canned milk, remove lint from clothing, secure bait on mousetraps, and repair cracked ceiling plaster. Goodyear used the tape to cover the inner ribs and beams of its dirigibles, creating an anti-corrosive shield.”
Richard Drew died in 1980 at the age of 81, but his legacy lives on, with Scotch Brand masking and cellophane tape still forming the cornerstones of 3M vast line of products. However, Scotch Tape’s popularity would only be a taste of things to come, for an even more versatile product was about to be invented.
The origins of what we now know as duct tape date back to 1927, when engineers Johnny Denoye and Bill Gross of Johnson & Johnson’s Revolite division developed a new cloth-based surgical tape designed to be torn by hand rather than cut with scissors. But it would take a World War and the determined efforts of a dedicated mother of two for the true potential of the concept to be realized.
In 1943, 52-year-old Vesta Stoudt was working at the Green River Ordnance Plant in Illinois, where she was tasked with inspecting boxes of blank cartridges used to launch rifle grenades. The cartridges were packed eleven to box, with the box coated in wax to keep out moisture. The flaps of the box were sealed with a wax-coated paper tape, one end of which was left loose so a soldier could pull on it to open the box. But there was a problem: the fragile paper tab often broke when pulled, leaving soldiers scrambling to claw open the boxes in the heat of battle. Stoudt, who had two sons serving in the Navy, worried that this design flaw was putting the lives of American servicemen at risk. Thankfully, she had a simple solution: seal the boxes with a stronger, adhesive-backed cloth tape. Stoudt presented her fix to her supervisors, and while they liked the idea, they did nothing to implement it. Undaunted, Stoudt did what any reasonable person would do: she wrote directly to Franklin D. Roosevelt, President of the United States:
“Now your son, my son and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or his knife if he is lucky enough to have one, nine chance out of ten he hasn’t any.
I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same. It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape. I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved. Had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second. I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape.”
Amazingly, her gamble paid off. President Roosevelt, impressed by Stoudt’s persistence and ingenuity, forwarded her letter to the War Production Board, which instructed Johnson & Johnson to implement her solution. For her initiative, Stoudt also received the Chicago Tribune’s War Worker Award.
The tape that Revolite came up with was produced by coating a strip of cotton duck with waterproof polyethylene on one side and a rubber-based adhesive known as “Polycoat” on the other. The tape was strong, waterproof, yet easily applied, removed and torn to length using one’s bare hands. Coloured standard army Olive Drab green, the tape was sent in large quantities overseas, where it soon found dozens of uses besides sealing ammunition boxes, such as taping together fuel cans and repairing tents, vehicles, and weapons. As mentioned previously, the tape was initially known as “duck” tape – either due to its use of cotton duck fabric or for its water-repellant qualities. The Air Force also referred to it as “100 mph tape” for its ability to withstand high speed winds, while in the Navy it was known as “EB Tape” after the Electric Boat Company, which used the tape extensively in the construction of submarines and torpedo boats.
After the war, the manufacturing rights to duck tape were acquired from Johnson & Johnson by the Melvin A. Anderson Company of Cleveland, Ohio, who made it available for purchase in hardware stores. In civilian use the tape found dozens of new and creative uses, including sealing the joints in metal ventilation ducts. In response to this new application, in the early 1950s, Melvin Anderson began producing tape with a metallic grey finish to match metal ductwork. And thus the modern term “duct tape” came to be.
…or so the story goes. In reality, the term “duct tape” does not appear in print until at least 1960, and did not enter common use until the 1970s, making the connection between the term “duct tape” and the tape’s postwar use in repairing ducts a dubious one at best. Indeed, despite the tape’s legendary versatility, about the only thing it is not good at is repairing ducts! In 1998, physicists Max Sherman and Lain Walker at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory applied a variety of sealing materials including regular grey duct tape to the joints of sheet metal ventilation ducts then ran hot and hold air through the ducts to simulate regular operating conditions. Surprisingly, of all the materials tested, the duct tape fared the worst, often shrinking, drying up, delaminating, or breaking. As Sherman stated of the experiment:
“It failed reliably and often quite catastrophically, and nothing else except duct tape failed.”
It is thus more than likely that the term “duct tape” is simply a corruption of the earlier word “duck tape”, or the result of confusion between silver duck tape and similar looking heat-resistant metal tape designed for use on heating ducts. This, combined with Manco Inc.’s trademarking and re-popularization of the old term “duck tape” means that, at the end of the day, both names are equally valid. Chances are, whichever name you use, most people are likely to know exactly what you are talking about.
But whatever it is called, duct tape has acquired a legendary reputation for being able to solve nearly any problem under the sun. As a result, a veritable cult surrounds the endlessly versatile substance. It is the go-to tool of many pop culture characters from Angus MacGyver to Red Green, has had its abilities tested – and confirmed – dozens of times on the TV show Mythbusters, and is the subject of an annual festival held every June in Avon, Ohio. Manco, the makers of Duck brand tape, even sponsor a “Stuck at Prom” contest, awarding scholarships for the best formal wear constructed of duct tape. The tape has also evolved considerably from its humble wartime origins, and now comes in dozens of varieties, from matte-black gaffer tape for theatre and film use to fibreglass duct tape for heavy-duty applications – as well as every colour of the rainbow. And the tape is big business: every year, Manco alone manufactures enough Duck brand tape to circle the earth 20 times, while the global duct tape market is valued at a whopping $4 billion. According to Tim Nyberg and Jim Berg, authors of a series of bestselling books on duct tape, the secret to the tape’s success is its simplicity and uniquely self-contained nature:
“It’s the quick fix. Whack on some duct tape and you’re done. It comes with no directions and no expectations as to how to use it. Name any other tool that is totally self contained. With hammers you need nails, screw drivers you need screws.”
Indeed, the tape’s myriad applications speak for themselves. In addition to repairing household items and making clothing, duct tape has been used by runway models to enhance cleavage, by athletes to support weak joints, and by veterinarians to repair horses’ hooves. Many first responder manuals contain instructions on how to use duct tape to temporarily suture wounds – particularly sucking chest wounds – while duct tape even has been found to be more effective than liquid nitrogen cryotherapy for eliminating warts. But perhaps nothing speaks to duct tape’s legendary versatility more than its storied use by the United States space program.
On April 11, 1970, NASA’s Apollo 13 lunar landing mission was thrown into chaos when an oxygen tank exploded, severely crippling the spacecraft and threatening the lives of astronauts Jim Lovell, Fred Haise, and Jack Swigert. With the functionality of the Command-Service Module Odyssey compromised, the astronauts were forced to retreat into the Lunar Module Aquarius, using it as a makeshift lifeboat. There they faced a myriad of problems, including limited electrical power and oxygen, freezing temperatures, and Haise developing a urinary tract infection. But most concerning of all were the steadily-rising carbon dioxide levels in the cabin, which threatened to poison the crew within hours. Like the CSM, the Lunar Module was fitted with lithium hydroxide scrubber canisters designed to remove CO2 from the air. However, they were designed to support two astronauts on the lunar surface for a day, not three men for six days, and quickly became saturated. Worse still, while the LM used round canisters, the CSM used larger square canisters that did not fit in the LM receptacles. Tasked with literally fitting a square peg into a round hole, engineers at NASA Mission Control in Houston worked non-stop for two days to come up with a solution, using only materials and tools found aboard the spacecraft. The solution they came up with involved encasing the square CSM canister in a plastic bag and using a space suit oxygen hose to connect it to the LM receptacle. But there were two major problems: sealing the bag to the hose and supporting the bag so it did not collapse against the canister, cutting off the flow of cabin air. The latter problem was tackled using the cardboard cover of the now-obsolete flight plan, while the second was solved using that indispensable part of the astronaut’s tool kit: a roll of grey duct tape. Thanks in part to duct tape, the makeshift repair worked perfectly and the astronauts survived the rest of the journey, splashing down safely in the Pacific Ocean on April 17. As Ed Smylie, one of the NASA engineers who came up with the solution to the CO2 scrubber problem, recalled in a 2005 interview:
“[When I knew there was duct tape on board the spacecraft], I felt like we were home free. One thing a Southern boy will never say is, ‘I don’t think duct tape will fix it.'”
Duct tape would also play a vital – if less dramatic – role in the very last Apollo mission, Apollo 17, which launched on December 7, 1972. As on the previous two missions, the crew of Apollo 17 were equipped with a folding, battery-powered vehicle known as the Lunar Roving Vehicle or LRV in order to cover greater distances on the lunar surface. Shortly into their first lunar EVA on December 11, Command Module Pilot Harrison Schmitt accidentally caught his geological hammer on the LRV’s rear right fender extension, breaking it clean off. While on an earth-bound vehicle this would have been a minor inconvenience at worst, on the moon it was potentially disastrous, for the fender prevented the LRV from throwing up clouds of notoriously abrasive lunar dust. Indeed, after only a few minutes of driving without the extension, the LRV was so thickly covered in dust that the batteries began to overheat. After spending several minutes dusting off the vehicle with a brush, Commander Eugene Cernan attempted to fix the fender extension back in place with an ever-handy roll “good old-fashioned American grey tape.” Unfortunately, the omnipresent dust also stuck to the tape, preventing it from sticking properly and causing the hastily-repaired fender to fall off after only a few minutes. Faced with the prospect of being unable to use the LRV, Cernan and Schmitt tried a different approach. Inside the Lunar Module Challenger, they used duct tape to laminate together four paper maps and create a makeshift fender extension. Inside the relatively dust-free environment of the LM, the tape retained its regular stickiness. And when clamped to the LRV fender, the crude extension worked perfectly, successfully abating the dust thrown up by the vehicle until the very end of the mission.
More recently, duct tape once again came to the rescue during the STS-51-D mission of the Space Shuttle Discovery, launched on April 12, 1985. As part of its mission, Discovery deployed two communications satellites: the Canadian Telesat-3 and the American Syncom IV-3. However, upon being launched from the shuttle’s cargo bay, Syncom failed to deploy its antennas or the “kicker” rocket motor that should have launched it into its desired orbit. After determining that the satellite’s sequencing lever had not been successfully pulled during launch, the crew of Discovery improvised a pair of tools nicknamed “flyswatters” from tool extension poles, plastic notebook covers, and – of course – duct tape. These were mounted to the end of the shuttle’s robotic Canadarm manipulator and used to grab and throw the Syncom sequencing switch. Unfortunately, the satellite still failed to launch and had to be returned to earth for repairs. It was finally launched by the STS-51-I mission launched in August of that year.
Given this illustrious track record, we can only imagine that every NASA employee who read Andy Weir’s 2011 novel The Martian let out a hearty “amen” when protagonist Mark Watney proclaimed:
“Yes, of course duct tape works in a near-vacuum. Duct tape works anywhere. Duct tape is magic and should be worshiped.”
Expand for References
The Man Who Invented Scotch Tape, Priceonomics, https://priceonomics.com/the-man-who-invented-scotch-tape/
Space Shuttle Flight 16 (STS-51D) Post Flight Presentation, National Space Society, May 12, 2011, www.youtube.com/watch?v+j-67i-LMzMM&t=707s
Gurowitz, Margaret, Duct Tape: Invented Here! Kilmer House, August 11, 2009, https://www.kilmerhouse.com/2009/08/duct-tape-invented-here/
Freeman, Jan, Tale of the Tape, Boston.com, March 14, 2010, http://archive.boston.com/bostonglobe/ideas/articles/2010/03/14/tale_of_the_tape/
Gurowitz, Margaret, The Woman Who Invented Duct Tape, Kilmer House, June 21, 2012, https://www.kilmerhouse.com/2012/06/the-woman-who-invented-duct-tape/
Ewalt, David, The Other Greatest Tool Ever, Forbes, March 15, 2006, https://www.forbes.com/2006/03/14/tools-duct-tape_cx_de_0315ducttape.html?sh=5407f84456db
Atkinson, Nancy, 13 Things That Saved Apollo 13, Part 10: Duct Tape, Universe Today, April 26, 2010, https://www.universetoday.com/63673/13-things-that-saved-apollo-13-part-10-duct-tape/
Johnson, Sandra, NASA Johnson Space Center Oral History Project: Charles D. Walker, NASA, April 14, 2005, https://historycollection.jsc.nasa.gov/JSCHistoryPortal/history/oral_histories/WalkerCD/WalkerCD_4-14-05.htm
Moondust and Duct Tape, NASA, April 21, 2008, https://science.nasa.gov/science-news/science-at-nasa/2008/21apr_ducttape/
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