Saturday, 21 September 2013

Mistake = Post It Note

Next up in my who invented that thread is one of my favourites. The humble Post It Notes a great story of how a mistake can make you millions.

In 1968 a 3M scientist developed a reusable adhesive that didn't really stick. The glue he created could hold paper together, but wasn't strong enough to maintain the bond when pulled on. Unfortunately, the scientist was trying to make a super glue. It would take 12 years and a flash of 'eureka' to turn the glue that wouldn't stick into the Post-It Note.

Spencer Silver, Inventor

Spencer Silver had a Ph.D. in Organic Chemistry when he came to 3M to work as a senior chemist in their Central Research Lab. While trying to improve the adhesive that 3M used for tape, Silver discovered a less sticky glue. 

Ordinary adhesives are flat, with a solid contact area for adhesion. It is this unbroken contact that makes glue so sticky. What Silver found was a glue that while quite sticky, could only be formed into individual spheres the thickness of a piece of paper. The spheres would only adhere to things tangentially, thus, the adhesive's total contact area was very small. The result was a tacky, reusable glue that held paper together well.

Silver knew he was on to something, but wasn't sure how to market it.

Early ideas included a sticky bulletin board for temporary messages, or as a low-powered spray adhesive. Silver kept plugging away at the possibilities of this new glue, presenting it individually and during seminars.

Arthur Fry, Inventor

In attendance at one of these seminars was a 3M scientist named Arthur Fry. Fry sang in his church choir, and to keep track of the hymns, he tore scraps of paper into strips to make bookmarks.

Every Sunday a few would fall out of the hymnal, frustrating Fry. In a moment of 'divine' inspiration, Fry realized that Silver's glue might make the perfect temporary adhesive to hold bookmarks!

At work, Fry gathered scraps of paper and Silver's glue, and combined them to make sticky, but removable bookmarks. The bookmarks were popular and handy, but people didn't need more than a few of them.

Shortly thereafter, Fry sent a file to a colleague, using one of these bookmarks with an arrow on it to indicate a point of interest. The report came back with the bookmark still attached, and the colleague had used the bookmark as a note!

Fry quickly realized that his bookmark had applications as an adhesive note. Fry believed so strongly in his invention that when engineers told him that a machine didn't exist to manufacture the notes, he went home and built just such a machine in his basement. When he couldn't fit it through his basement door, he knocked the wall down. Now he had his manufacturing equipment, and a great product.

The only thing he didn't have was the support of senior management at 3M. To overcome this, Fry sent samples of his notes to all the company's executives, who quickly ordered more samples. Management was quickly hooked, and their demand soon outstripped development's production capacity.

3M Marketing Machine

When it became clear that Post-It Notes were viable in a commercial atmosphere, 3M's marketing went to work. 

In 1978 a team of 3M marketers flooded Boise, Idaho, showing everyone they could find the wondrous new notes. Post-It Notes were officially released to the public in 1980, and in 1981 they were named 3M's Outstanding New Product.

Today there are over 600 products based on the Post-It concept. Arthur Fry is semi-retired from 3M, maintaining a part-time presence as a mentor. Spencer Silver retired in 1996.

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