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Sticking Power

Sonja Haggert

MY HUSBAND’S READING material consists of financial publications and Chemical & Engineering News, a throwback to his chemistry education. The other day, I glanced over his shoulder to see an article about Spencer F. Silver.

Never heard of him? No doubt, you’ve used a Post-it Note or two. Silver invented their adhesive while a chemist at 3M.

The article told of his passing, and went into a technical explanation of the science behind the Post-it Note. I was intrigued to learn about the man and a discovery that’s become part of our lives—and contributes to 3M’s bottom line.

Silver discovered something called microspheres, a stickiness that has a removability component. This makes paper adhere and yet removable for reuse. Unfortunately, when Silver invented the adhesive, 3M wanted a stronger, tougher, permanent glue. They thought Silver’s discovery useless and odd.

Silver persevered. He talked up the adhesive among his colleagues. He didn’t have much luck for many years—that is, until the day he spoke with a co-worker in another research department, Art Fry. Fry had a problem. He sang in a church choir and used a bookmark to mark hymns to sing. The bookmark would sometimes fall out, causing Fry to lose his place.

Fry needed a bookmark that would stay in place, but not damage the hymnal when removed. He developed one using Silver’s new adhesive. His first attempt didn’t tear the page when it was removed, but it did leave some adhesive residue. A few experiments later, Fry solved that problem. Yet there was still the reusability aspect to the product. Management feared it would limit sales.

One day, when sending a report to a supervisor, Silver cut off a piece of the bookmark. He wrote a note on it and stuck it to the report. His supervisor wrote an answer on that same piece of paper and then sent it back.

For Silver, this was the “aha” moment. The sticky note was born.

It was originally launched as Press ’n Peel in 1977. In took giving away samples—and renaming it Post-it Notes in 1980—before the product became a hit. Today, it’s one of the most widely used products in the world.

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