Scotch tape brings us together
Dec 11, 2019 | by Becky Oeltjenbruns
I spent this weekend frantically finishing up my Christmas shopping. After traipsing to and fro, it felt wonderful to return home to a cool glass of eggnog. Once I got my second wind, the next stage in Operation Happy Holidays commenced: wrapping all the gifts. Between the colorful paper, fun gift tags, and ribbon, my dining room was transformed into Santa’s workshop.
Some of these goodies are destined for far-flung places and, as I lovingly wrapped each box in bubble wrap, I got to thinking about how much we rely on tape. In some ways it’s the unsung hero of the holidays. Without our handy rolls of tape, packages would be destined for a bumpy ride to their final stop. This Winter, in commemoration of our holiday helper, let’s explore why scotch tape brings us together…
Our story begins at the turn of the 20th century in the frigid landscape of St. Paul, Minnesota. During cold nights, the youth of the Twin Cities gathered in dance halls to spin their partner round and round. I can almost hear the happy tunes, soft laughter, and bask in the glow of lights twinkling atop the snow banks. At the center of many a social event was a young banjo player named Richard Drew. He spent most of his nights providing music for his fellow students, earning enough money to attend the University of Minnesota. Always a curious child, he entered into the engineering program. Halfway through his sophomore year Richard quit. I wonder if the allure of college didn’t meet his expectations or he simply decided he needed to earn a paycheck (after all, he was no stranger to hard work). At any rate, he fast-tracked his education via a correspondence course. His emphasis was machine design, a discipline that’s laser-focused on converting inputs into extraordinary outputs.
Richard found his first post-school role at the fledgling Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company, now known as 3M. By the time he started as a lab tech, the company had just transitioned into a new industry: sandpaper. As one of the newest team members, Richard often found himself making client deliveries. Often times his route would take him to auto manufacturers. With every trip he learned something new and soon he discovered a problem he wanted to help solve. During the Jazz Age, two-tone cars were all the rage. If you were a well-heeled gentleman you needed customized wheels to match your winning personality. Auto shops were flooded with orders and Richard witnessed the whole messy business, step by step, over the course of his visits. Workers would carefully glue butcher paper to hug the car’s curves, then the painters would set about their work. The problem was that the canvas was deceptively delicate – either the glue would leave chipped paint in its wake or it wouldn’t stay put.
This one observation set him on a journey. For two years he experimented with all sorts of possibilities – his singular goal was to make an alternative to glue. An adhesive that was sticky enough to hold its position, but forgiving enough to be removed without damaging the surface. Many of his coworkers noticed his obsession; I imagine bringing in bottles of vegetable oil didn’t go unnoticed! Despite the confusion from his colleagues, he didn’t give up. Success was his in 1925. This initial version was a layer of thin paper with a recipe of glue and glycerin. (Glycerin is most commonly known as a skin moisturizer.) I imagine after two years of scientific exploration, two years of late nights at the office, and two years of trial and error – this milestone had to feel incredible!
Unfortunately feedback on this first version wasn’t exactly kind – the very painters he created it for proved to be a tough crowd. The glycerin additive meant that the paper had a short shelf-life. The paper would be set, the painters would get their equipment ready, and by that time the paper had slid down the metal car body. Their commentary: this is Scotch tape. The label was meant to be a put-down – a way to say that the invention was cheap. Richard was undaunted and continued to innovate. In a few months following the debut of scotch tape, he presented a waterproof and transparent tape. This adhesive incorporated the newly invented cellophane. While Richard was busy in his lab, America was struggling to get through the Great Depression. So much for those two-tone cars, now families were striving to make do and mend. They say necessity is the mother of invention. In this case, Richard’s ability to ask questions no one else was addressing led him to a critical invention. Families everywhere were buying and using scotch tape to repair all manner of things. By observing one challenge, Richard cleverly solved for a multitude of challenges.
And it wasn’t just the fact that Richard created something iconic, but it was how he worked. Consider all of the big tech companies we admire today. Well, in some ways they can thank scotch tape for their innovative policies. With scotch tape’s unparalleled success, 3M realized that engineers need time to think, create, and ponder. They developed a 15% rule, meaning that employees would have 15% of their time to dedicate to solving unforeseen problems. Oftentimes our modern society can become glued to devices and applications. Free play (as educators call it) – is just as important for adults as it is for children. When you nurture imagination, you never know where your ideas will lead. Dear reader, I encourage you during this busy season to pull a Richard and dream! Who knows where your mind may take you…