WD-40: the scourge of snakes, beavers and cocaine-taking clubbers

A bus driver in Asia faced with the problem of a python coiled around the undercarriage of his vehicle may, on the face of it, have little in common with a Bristol nightclub owner trying to deter customers from snorting cocaine in the lavatories. But for both, the solution lay inside the distinctive yellow and blue can of WD-40.

A bus driver in Asia faced with the problem of a python coiled around the undercarriage of his vehicle may, on the face of it, have little in common with a Bristol nightclub owner trying to deter customers from snorting cocaine in the lavatories. But for both, the solution lay inside the distinctive yellow and blue can of WD-40.

Avon and Somerset Police are encouraging pub landlords and club managers to use the famously versatile spray to coat toilet lids to prevent customers using them to snort cocaine from. When the drug comes into contact with a light coating of WD-40, it congeals, making it impossible to sniff.

Joining the war on drugs is the latest application of the fluid that began life 51 years ago in a laboratory in San Diego, California, as part of America's determination to win the space race against the Russians.

The manufacturer claims that there are more than 2,000 "official" uses of WD-40. These include removing a snake from a bus, buffing up the tyres of a wheelbarrow or preventing trees from being nibbled by beavers. Police have used itto remove a burglar stuck inside an air conditioning duct. But these applications were far from the mind of the father of WD-40, the chemist Norm Larson, when his Rocket Chemical Company was asked by Nasa to come up with a way of preventing the Atlas rocket from rusting up on its re-entry into the Earth's atmosphere. He took 40 attempts to get the formula right for his new water displacement fluid - which is where he got the name WD-40. The exact formula remains one of the most closely guarded secrets in industry.

According to company mythology, so well did it work that technicians at the laboratory took some home to help them deal with household rust and lubrication problems. They found it was also rather good at removing stains from floors and clothing and cleaning dirt from clogged-up mechanisms. But Larson had one more master-stroke up his sleeve, decanting his secret formula into an aerosol can, making it easy to apply.

WD-40 first hit the stores in San Diego in 1958. Two years later the company had doubled in size, employing seven people. They were shifting 45 cases a day from the boots of their cars, mainly to hardware and sporting goods shops in the San Diego area.

In 1961 the company was to face its defining test when Hurricane Carla hit the Gulf coast of the United States. The company stepped up a gear and produced a whole truckload when employees gave up their Saturday to meet the needs of the thousands of machines and vehicles damaged in the floods. WD-40 had made its name and after growing steadily through the Sixties - it arrived in Britain at the end of the decade - the Rocket Chemical Company renamed itself after its only product.

The Seventies were golden years for WD. Going public in 1973 its stock priced soared 61 per cent on the first day of trading. Around this time Larson left the company he had founded but by his invention was bigger than the man. In the following years, as sales topped $50m and then $100m worldwide, WD-40 built up a loyal, at times fanatical following.

In the Nineties books were written on the subject. There was The WD-40 Book, and then WD-40 For the Soul .

The various boasts on the company website about the product's wild and wacky uses clearly owe as much to entertainment as they do to engineering. The brand has been marketed very cleverly to appeal beyond the narrow world of the amateur do-it-yourselfer. But rivals are creeping on to the shelves all the time threatening WD-40's 80 per cent share in the UK.

But the splendid isolation of WD-40 could not last. In 1995 the company bought the century-old brand 3-In-One. Further lines were added as the company celebrated its 50th year and sales went through the $200m barrier. WD-40 was by now selling in 187 countries.

But the celebrations were tinged with sadness. When plans for a party to mark the golden anniversary were being drawn up, no one could trace Norm Larson. The father of WD-40 had disappeared.

SOME OF THE USES OF WD-40

* Spray on trees to prevent beavers from chewing them

* Removes gum from flagpoles

*Cleans and lubricates the rubber surrounds on stereo sub woofers

* Cleans food stains from clothes

* Shines wheelbarrow tyres

* Lubricates antique cuckoo clock pendulums

* Frees stuck Lego blocks

* Removes a python stuck in car engine

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