Eighty-five years ago this week, the Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing Company – later to become 3M – sent out the very first reel of transparent sticky tape to a prospective customer. The months spent trying to find a way to make cellophane sticky was, according to one 3M employee, one of the most discouraging periods in the company's history – but the product would become a household essential.
Much of the credit goes to Richard G Drew, the technical director of 3M's Product Fabrication Laboratory, whose rise through the company from odd-job boy was largely down to his 1925 invention of masking tape. So the story goes, after witnessing a car worker making a mess of a two-tone paint job, he resolved to come up with a solution, working independently and against the advice of his bosses.
"Why be so Scotch with the adhesive?" asked one customer about an early version of masking tape; as James Ward points out in his book Adventures In Stationery, this manages to be offensive to Scottish people on two levels, "not only implying that they're miserly but also that they're called 'Scotch'". That name would be retained for the new transparent tape which combined cellophane with a mixture of oil, resin and rubber, and during the Great Depression it became synonymous with thrift. Farmers used it to repair cracked eggs, bankers used it to repair torn paper money, and one advert promoted it as a hair-cutting aid. "Fix fringe to forehead with Scotch tape and cut across top of tape," read its instructions. "Fringe cuts straight, hair trimmings stick to tape."
In 2007, Drew was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. 3M still has a workplace policy inspired by him, whereby employees are encouraged to spend as much as 15 per cent of their paid time on their own projects. µ