Super Glue was Invented by Accident, Twice

Today I found out Super Glue was invented by accident, twice.

Super Glue, also known as cyanoacrylate, was originally discovered in 1942 by Dr. Harry Coover, who by the way died last month on March 26th, 2011.  Coover was attempting to make clear plastic gun sights to be put on guns used by Allied soldiers in WWII.  One particular formulation he came up with didn’t work well for gun sights, but worked fantastically as an extremely quick bonding adhesive.  Surprisingly, despite the commercial potential of such a product, Coover abandoned that formulation completely as it obviously wasn’t suitable for his current project, being too sticky.

Nine years later, in 1951, now working at Eastman Kodak, Dr. Coover was the supervisor of a project looking at developing a heat resistant acrylate polymer for jet canopies.  Fred Joyner was working on that project and at one point used the rediscovered Super Glue and tested it by spreading ethyl cyanoacrylate between a pair of refractometer prisms.  To his surprise, the prisms became stuck very solidly together.  This time, Coover did not abandoned the cyanoacrylate (Super Glue), rather,  he realized the great potential of a product that would quickly bond to a variety of materials and only needed a little water to activate, which generally is provided in the materials to be bonded themselves.

Super Glue was finally put on the market in 1958 by Eastman Kodak and was called the slightly less catchy name of “Eastman #910”, though they later re-named it “Super Glue”.  Eastman #910 was soon licensed to Loctite who then re-branded it again to a somewhat uninspired name of “Loctite Quick Set 404”. Although, they later developed their own version, calling it “Super Bonder”.  By the 1970s, numerous manufactures of cyanoacrylate glues had popped up, with Eastman Kodak, Loctite, and Permabond accounting for around 3/4 of all “Super Glue” sales.

Note: It should be noted here that while Super Glue was originally invented by accident thanks to WWII, it was not, as a popular urban legend tells, accidentally discovered by soldiers in WWII who then subsequently began using it to seal up battle wounds.  Rather, it was discovered as described above and didn’t hit the public market until well after WWII had ended.

Interestingly though, according to its creator, Dr. Harry Coover, Super Glue actually was used  in the Vietnam War to help close up wounds on soldiers while they were being transported to hospitals to then receive stitches.  Today, a form of cyanoacrylate is often used in place of or in conjunction with traditional sutures.

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Bonus Facts:

  • Applying Super Glue to cotton or wool results in a rapid chemical reaction that releases enough heat to cause minor burns, so typically this should be avoided.  However, if enough cyanoacrylate is added to the cotton or wool, the fabric will catch on fire, making this a great trick to keep in mind in survival situations.  Generally, cotton and wool are readily available and cyanoacrylate is always a good thing to have on hand in first aid kits, due to its wound sealing ability.  So if you ever find yourself lost in the woods with nothing but a first aid kit and no other easy means to start a fire, this little trick might help you out.
  • While Super Glue + cotton or wool can create enough heat to cause a flame, Super Glue + other materials also will cause heat.  This is thanks to the process of anionic polymerization that the glue undergoes as it bonds.  Because of this, if you put enough Super Glue on your finger, you can actually burn yourself that way too, without any other materials necessary.
  • Super Glue really is “super”.  A one square inch bonding of Super Glue can hold around one ton. In fact, Super Glue has even been used to bond a small surface area of metal attached to a crane, which was then glued to the top of a car.  The car was then lifted successfully by the crane without the bond breaking.
  • Coover didn’t just invent Super Glue, but also held the patents to over 460 other inventions.  He also developed a unique “programmed innovation” method which he implemented at Kodak and which resulted in a remarkable 320 new products being developed under his supervision while he was at Kodak.  During that span, those products helped raise Kodak’s annual revenue from $1.8 billion to $2.5 billion.  He later left Kodak and formed a consulting group that would teach businesses his programmed innovation methods.
  • Super Glue adheres nearly instantly when it comes in contact with the hydroxyl ions in water.  When this happens, the molecules form chains that make a very strong and durable plastic mesh that eventually hardens.  Thanks to the fact that an amazing amount of materials out there have some trace amount of water at their surface, in part due to water in the air, adding water to these objects is typically not necessary, though it can help create a stronger bond if you add some before applying the Super Glue.
  • As mentioned above, research has shown that a form of Super Glue actually does make a great wound closure agent and, in fact, on many smaller types of wounds, outperforms traditional suturing by: reducing the chances of infection; being quicker to apply and seal the wound; and reducing negative cosmetic side effects.
  • The name “Kodak” was devised by Eastman and his mother, playing with an anagram set.  They were looking for a name that adhered to three principles: short; cannot be mispronounced; and should not resemble anything or be associated with anything else except for the business that would eventually be called by that name.
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  • “Super Glue” is STILL used by troops to close cuts and wounds until they can be treated! I am 61 and we used it in the First Gulf War.