Duct tape (in case, for some inexplicable reason, you don’t know) is an amazingly versatile, vinyl, fabric-reinforced, multi-purpose adhesive gift from the Gods. It fixes everything and anything lucky enough to be in its path. The Jesus Christ of sticky tapes; ‘DT’ is miraculous, saintly and has just a hint of being a tower of attraction to women.
I set to work on my wallet; patching the interior with small pieces of the wonderful silver stuff and within minutes I had restored it to its former glory, and all without making it look ridiculous – yet another victory for the Don of the sticky-tape underworld. Forget about the wheel or penicillin, Duct tape is the greatest human invention of all time. There’s simply nothing it cannot do and even if you do manage to find something it might struggle with, it’ll try its little heart out for you.
Need to connect heating duct-work together? Duct tape. Need to stop drafts? Duct tape. Need to kidnap someone? Duct tape. Need to stop tectonic plate movement? Duct tape. Need to stop someone blabbering on and on? Duct tape. Bored and just want something to do? Duct tape. Need to keep a screaming child in one place? Duct tape is your answer. Duct candela, conduite smack, Kanal Tonband, duct veterband, duct lagyan ng teyp – in any language duct tape means ‘problem solved’.
To find out how duct tape came to be (and I know you’re dying to), we must first discover when the first commercial adhesive tape was manufactured by travelling back in time to a tumultuous 1925. This was a year when Mussolini took dictatorial powers over Italy, red double-decker buses began rumbling through the streets of London and the Chrysler Corporation was born. A year when Charles Francis Jenkins transmitted the very first pictures over wireless, Adolf Hitler published Mein Kampf, the Great Sphinx of Giza was unearthed and Louis (later ‘Satchmo’) Armstrong switched from the clarinet to the trumpet. This was the year that brought us Charlie Chaplin, Malcolm X, Sammy Davis Jr, Tony Curtis, Robert F. Kennedy and, of course, adhesive tape. So we have the ‘when’, but what about the ‘who’, ‘why’s’ and the ‘wotsits’ I hear you cry. Well, curiously, my research (stop laughing) has shown that the ‘who’ isn’t as straight-forward as you might think.
There emerged two conflicting accounts of who invented the very first sticky tape in my fervent web-digging. One story claims that in 1925 an unknown chemist from Detroit, Michigan, began selling Johnson & Johnson surgical tape to a local car manufacturer who used it for two-tone car paint jobs. By 1927 Johnson & Johnson realised the huge market potential and begun producing tape products for the industrial market – and the rest, as they say, is history – or is it? The other story tells a whimsical tale of a certain Richard G. Drew who was an employee at a company called 3M in Minnesota in 1923. At the time 3M was a modest manufacturer of sandpaper. While testing their new ‘Wetordry’ sandpaper at car garages, Drew was intrigued to learn that the two-tone car paint jobs so popular in the ‘Roaring Twenties’ were difficult to manage at the border between the two colours. Drew went away and after two years of work in 3M’s labs, he invented the first masking tape, a two-inch-wide tan paper strip backed with a light, pressure-sensitive adhesive and solved his local garage’s problem of applying two different paint colours to a vehicle precisely.
The first tape had adhesive along its edges but not in the middle. Legend has it that in its first trial run, it fell off the car; and the frustrated car painter growled at Drew, ‘Take this tape back to those Scotch bosses of yours and tell them to put more adhesive on it!’ (By ‘Scotch,’ he meant ‘parsimonious.’) The nickname stuck – to Drew’s improved masking tape, and to his greatest invention, Scotch Brand Cellulose Tape, which he perfected 5 years later in 1930.
Whether it was an astute Detroit chemist or a smarty-pants inventor-type named Richard G. Drew who created the first commercial sticky-tape, the fact is that without it, duct tape wouldn’t be here and that’s a sobering thought for any of us. Let’s just play it safe and give thanks to Detroit chemists and American nerds everywhere, that’s what I say.
There appears to be no such controversy about who invented duct tape however. All my research points the finger squarely at American company Johnson & Johnson and they indeed confidently claim that in 1942 they manufactured a tape designed to keep moisture out of ammunition cases during the Second World War. Army folk, being the jovial chaps that they are, referred to it at the time as ‘duck tape’ reportedly because it was waterproof, but it’s more likely that this was due to the fact that it was made of cotton duck, which was similar to the cloth in medical tapes produced at the time. Military personnel quickly discovered that the tape was very versatile and used it for minor repairs to their guns, military vehicles and aircraft. After the war, the tape was widely used in the booming US housing industry to connect heating and air conditioning duct-work together. Soon, the colour of the tape was changed from Army green to silver to match the ductwork (clever marketing move that one) and people started to refer to duck tape as ‘Duct tape’. In the 1970’s they placed rolls of duct tape in shrink wrap, making it easier for retailers to stack the sticky rolls. Different grades and colours of duct tape weren’t far behind. Before long duct tape became the most versatile tool in anyone’s household and went on to be included in Fortune magazine’s 1999 ‘Products of the Century’ series.
On countless occasions, duct tape has always come to my rescue, sticking, securing and fastening whenever and wherever I needed it to; a veritable Fonzarelli of the sticky-tape world.
As marvellous as duct tape is though, I have noticed one thing that it can’t ‘stick and fix’ (just like ‘The Fonz’ in many ways) and that is … itself. How tragic. So, please, the next time you rely on duct tape to get you out of a jam, just remember: it’s a troubled little soul.