Post it Notes – The Accidental Billion Dollar Invention

Spencer Silver and Art Fry sold 50 million packs in the first year alone
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Post it Notes – The Accidental Billion Dollar Invention

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Spencer F. Silver (1941) studied chemistry at Arizona State University and then earned a doctorate in Organic Chemistry from the University of Colorado before becoming a Senior Chemist at the industrial giant 3M’s Central Research Laboratory in 1966.

He was first assigned to a team of five people researching pressure-sensitive adhesive and their objectives were to develop a new, super-strong industrial adhesive.

But, instead, Dr Silver accidentally added, by his own admission, more than the recommended amount of the chemical reactant used to cause the molecules to polymerize. The result was not exactly what the good doctor had been trying to achieve but he did notice something unique about his experiment. Unintentionally Silver had created an adhesive that had, what he later described as, ‘high-tack’ but ‘low-peel’ properties.

Spencer Silver immediately realized he had a developed an entirely new type of adhesive but it was not immediately apparent to anybody what it could be used for. It certainly wasn’t what anybody was hoping for as, until then, an adhesive that was weak enough to pull apart was exactly the opposite of what his team was trying to achieve.

Undeterred Silver continued to experiment although all he was able to produce was an adhesive strong enough to hold two pieces of paper together and yet weak enough to be peeled apart. But, it could be re-used, multiple times, and that was what appealed to Silver. Years went by and he could not think of a practical use for his new adhesive.

The 3M Product Developers rejected the idea as they too could not conceive a potential use for it and so, although Dr Silver was frustrated in his efforts, he did begin to deliver a series of lectures throughout the company in the hope that one of the bright young things may identify a commercial use for his new ‘high-tack-low-peel’ product.

In the process he became known throughout the corridors at 3M as ‘Mr Persistent’ and for two long years the best suggestion anybody had was to use it as a spray for notice-boards that could display company messages without the need for pins.

It was a noble thought but not exactly an idea worthy of international distribution and the powers that be at 3M remained curious, but unconvinced. That was until the day Art Fry, who also worked for 3M in their New Product Development Department, was on the second hole of his local golf course and was told, by a colleague, about Silver’s ‘interesting adhesive.’

Fry worked in the Tape Division Laboratory and decided to attend one of Silver’s seminars in order to satisfy his professional curiosity, although he too could think of no practical use for a sticky tape that could be easily pulled apart.

At that time there was no demand for that kind of product and so Art Fry filed the idea away in the back of his mind, where it may have remained until he had one of those moments of inspiration that most inventors and developers can only dream about.

Five years later, on a Sunday morning and during a particularly boring church sermon, Art Fry, a member of the choir, lost interest and began, instead, to wonder what he could do to stop his book marks falling out of his hymn book as he turned the pages.

As he pondered the problem he began to recall details of Silver’s seminar and started to consider the notion of adhesive, reusable bookmarks.

Fry was excited about the idea and the following morning he made his way straight to Spencer Silver’s lab and asked for some samples of his unused adhesive. After several experiments Art Fry tested his new bookmark at choir practice and although it worked, the residue caused slight damage to the pages. However, after a few more attempts Fry made a book mark that stuck to the pages and left no mark after it had been removed.

Also, each bookmark could be used multiple times. It was the innovative side a Art Fry had been looking for and so he wrote up his conclusions and presented them to the 3M Development Board. Initially they liked the idea but market research returned poor sales projections and so the adhesive bookmark remained stuck on the shelf, in the back-room.

Another couple of years went by until one day, when Art Fry was preparing a report for a supervisor; he wrote a question on one of his book marks and stuck it to the front of the report. His colleague wrote the answer on the same piece of paper and returned it stuck to another document and Art Fry had what he would later describe as a ‘eureka type head-flapping moment.’

He had discovered his use for the easy-peel adhesive and that would be sticky note pads. Fry raced to a neighbouring department and found the only paper they could give him was canary yellow and so, for no other reason, the yellow Post-It note pad was born.

The samples Fry made and distributed throughout the company proved to be so popular that he later recalled ‘executives walking through knee deep snow to ask for replacement pads.’

In 1977 3M tested the product in four cities under the trade name ‘Press n Peel’ but the initial sales results were not encouraging. The product, however, remained a firm favorite among 3M staff and so the following year developers decided they needed people to see for themselves how useful re-useable, adhesive note-pads were and distributed free samples throughout the town of Boise in Idaho.

Ninety-five percent of users soon confirmed they intended to buy the product. That was a good enough return and so in 1980 3M finally launched their new, innovative, Post-It Notes. They then sold fifty-million packs during their first year of trading.

Within two years Post-It Notes had been established as a necessity and 3M had dedicated an entire production line for that one product alone. They were soon indispensable in schools, libraries, homes, workshops, offices and were available in all shapes, sizes, fragrances and colors, although the original canary yellow is still, by far, the most popular.

In modern times 3M still sell around $3.5 billion dollars’ worth of Post-It Notes every year although after their patent ran out, during the 1990’s, they are now in competition with many other manufacturers. Dr Spencer L Silver and Art Fry, for their part, became ‘heroes of invention’ and have both won the highest honours for research that 3M bestow.

They are also the recipients of numerous international engineering & invention awards. In later years Spencer Silver commented; ‘If I had thought about it, I wouldn’t have even done that experiment. The literature is full of examples that say you can’t do this.’

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