This NBC Learn video, part of a series on "Chance Discoveries" in chemistry, tells the story of 3M chemist Spencer Silver, who in a lab experiment created a weak adhesive with no apparent practical use -- until a 3M colleague, Arthur Fry used it to develop the first Post-it Notes. (Photo of Dr. Spencer Silver courtesy of CU Heritage Center)
Chance Discoveries: Post-it Notes
TOM COSTELLO, reporting:
Post-it notes. So convenient. So useful. Just sticky enough to stay where they’re put until they’re peeled off . The very quality that almost kept them from ever being produced. The story begins in the late 1960s, St. Paul, Minnesota, with a chemist and adhesives expert with a great name: Spencer Silver
DR. MICHAL MEYER, Editor in Chief Chemical Heritage: Spencer Silver was working for a company called 3M, which is well known for making tape.
COSTELLO: Scotch tape, masking tape, duct tape. Products based on adhesives that 3M was always trying to improve.
MEYER: 3M was looking for good adhesives. And that was the project that Spencer Silver was working on, to come up with adhesives that worked really well.
COSTELLO: In his lab, Silver put small molecules called monomers into a reaction mixture, thinking maybe they’d combine into a new stickier polymer. Just to see what would happen, he ignored the recommended amounts of monomers to add.
MEYER: And instead of adding small quantities, which is what he was expected to do, he added large quantities.
COSTELLO: The result? A weak “low-tack” glue not strong enough to make tight bonds between surfaces.
MEYER: It’s something they could have easily thrown out and thought, well, this doesn’t work very well as glue. Let me just get rid of it and start again. 3M wanted to make strong adhesives that stayed strong. Here was something that was weak.
COSTELLO: Silver had failed to make what he set out to make, but was intrigued by what he’d made instead.
MEYER: In fact, you could say he had more stickability than the glue he came up with, because he persisted for several years trying to find a use for this glue. It actually takes another person, another co-worker named Fry, who was also working at 3M.
COSTELLO: Arthur Fry, a chemist, who also happened to sing in a church choir.
MEYER: Now he had a book with the hymns in it and he would mark them with little bits of paper but of course the little bits of paper kept on falling out. And then one day, he had this almost epiphany: why not create bookmarks with this glue that is only really weak, so you could put in the bookmarks and they would stay where they were supposed to stay?
COSTELLO: And could be lifted off and moved with no damage to the pages: no paperclip dents, no staple holes. And could be written on. Post-it Notes were developed, and hit the market in 1980.
MEYER: 3M ended up with a product that everybody now knows about today. It was the combination of the idea of how to use it, along with Silver's initial discovery, that created Post-it Notes.
COSTELLO: A testament to “what if,” curiosity, resourceful thinking and stick-to-it-iveness.
Every predator needs to catch its prey. We humans use our hands, sharks and wolves use their jaws, but a few animals like frogs use something much stranger: their tongues.
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