Great Moments in Packaging No 3: Pressure Sensitive Tape
The catch-all term “pressure sensitive tape” encompasses a huge range of similar but different types of product with a multitude of uses, and basically refers to a product which with light pressure will readily stick to most surfaces. Today, that includes everything from masking and packing tape to duct tape and medical plasters.
Pressure sensitive tapes are usually made of four layers: the sticky bit; the backing (vinyl, polypropylene, cloth etc); the primer, which sticks the sticky bit to the backing; and the release coat, which is applied to the backing to stop the sticky bit from sticking to it when you unwind the tape. It’s not as straightforward as you thought, is it?
Medical practice makes perfect
The first recorded use of pressure sensitive tape dates from 1845, when Dr Horace Day invented a way of applying a rubber-based adhesive to strips of cloth for use in surgery. Together with Dr William Shecut (an appropriate name under the circumstances), he was granted a patent which they sold to Dr Thomas Allcock, who marketed it under the catchy name of Allcock’s Porous Plasters, claiming they would relieve and clear rheumatism, sciatica, malaria and “backaches caused by motherhood”, among other maladies. Presumably, advertising standards were more lax in those days.
Apart from a few refinements to medical sticking plaster, it wasn’t until 1923 that the next great leap forward took place, this time thanks to a problem in the car industry. Two-tone cars were becoming popular in the US and paint sprayers were struggling to get a clear straight line between different paint finishes. They tried using surgical tape, but when they removed it, the paint came with it.
Spending a lot of time at a car manufacturer in St Paul, Minnesota, was a representative of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company. He was there testing a new waterproof sandpaper (sandpaper being the principal interest of the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company at the time), when he heard about the paint sprayers’ dilemma. His solution was some cabinet-makers’ glue on a treated crepe paper backing. You can see the original application for his patent for the tape here.
Who was that masking man?
His name was Richard G Drew and just two years later his invention was being successfully marketed as masking tape. The company he worked for shortened its name and is now known as 3M. Legend has it that the tape became known as Scotch tape after one car worker, unimpressed with the low level of adhesive on a prototype, told his sales rep to take it back to his Scotch (ie stingy) bosses and shove it! Apparently, the company seized on the name as they thought it would suggest something that was economical (and would later use a cartoon boy in a kilt, called Scotty McTape, in their first television ads).
Literally on a roll, Drew continued his good work and in 1930 struck gold again, this time working out how to coat the newly invented cellophane with an adhesive, thus creating the first version of the clear sticky tape that is still used in every household and office. His timing was especially good; as the recession took hold, people were able to use it to ‘make do and mend’, rather than buy new, replacement items.
Richard Drew died in 1980 and in 2007 was inducted into the US National Inventors Hall of Fame. Horace Day, meanwhile, with the sale of his patent, seems to disappear from history and is heard of no more.
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