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Richard Drew, The Man Who Invented Scotch Tape

Stashed in: Innovation, Tools!, History of Tech!, Tape!, Freakonomics, Extraordinary People

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He knew nothing about tape. It took him two years just to invent masking tape...

Richard Drew had no clue how to make tape. But he realized that as a sandpaper manufacturer, 3M had access to many of the necessary components: after all, creating sandpaper required a sticky surface to which the minerals would be applied.

So, in his time between selling sandpaper, the brash engineer set out to invent his new tape. A series of experiments ensued with various ingredients -- vegetable oils, chicle, linseed, glycerin, all types of resins -- but nothing really worked. What’s more, as Drew fell behind on his other work, his superiors ordered him to drop his efforts and return to his primary duties.

“(Drew) could back his promise with neither experience nor know-how,” later recalled one overseer at 3M. “He didn’t even know exactly what was needed, but he had the optimism of youth.” 

Drew refused to give up, and pursued the tape invention in his own time. Two years later, he found a formula that worked: a mix of cabinet maker’s glue and glycerin applied to a thin, treated crepe paper produced a tape that convincingly stuck to its surface but still peeled off easily and didn’t damage paint.

...and then the rest of the decade to invent Scotch Brand Cellulose Tape (later renamed Scotch Transparent Tape), released in 1930. It was an instant hit and made 3M thrive during the Great Depression.

I love this part:

Drew also held no stock in an applicant’s educational background. “He felt that even if you flunked kindergarten, if you stayed in motion, you’d get things done,” later said Ted “Flipper” Buchholtz. With no formal education, Buchholtz was hired by Drew and would later go on to invent Scotch’s now-immensely profitable mounting tape.

Soon, the Pro-Fab Lab became the butt of jokes within 3M. It was dubbed “the funny farm” by upper-level executives, and Drew’s team gained a reputation for employing the “misfits” who didn’t fit in anywhere else. Nonetheless, the team’s focus remained on innovation.

“There was complete freedom to build and do,” recalls John Pearson, who once worked under Drew. “I could purchase stuff and build things, and the engineering department agreed to a hands-off policy.”

“Dick created an environment where people were always encouraged,” adds another ex-employee. “He created a greenhouse environment—a skunkworks—where we could do anything, try anything. When you’re an oddball in a permissive environment, very often things turn out well.”

At the core of this “oddball” environment was a new concept that Drew had introduced to 3M: workers were encouraged to spend up to 15% of their work day innovating and developing their own products (similar strategies have since been integrated at Google and other tech companies). This ended up producing a series of very profitable breakthroughs: Scotchlite reflective sheeting, Micropore surgical tape, foam tape, decorative ribbon, face masks, and respirators among them.

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