A Short History of Duct Tape

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During the second world war, U.S. troops in the heat of battle had a strangely impractical way of reloading their weapons.

Cartridges used for grenade launchers was one example. Boxed, sealed with wax and taped over to protect them moisture, soldiers would need to pull on a tab to peel off the paper tape and break the seal. Sure, it worked -- except when it didn't, soldiers were left scrambling to pry the boxes open.

Vesta Stoudt had been working at factory packing and inspecting these cartridges when she got to thinking that there had to be a better way. She also happened to be a mother of two sons serving in the Navy and was particularly perturbed that their lives and countless others were left to such chance.

But was there really an alternative? Concerned for the welfare of sons, she discussed with her supervisors an idea she had to fabricate a tape made from strong, water-resistant cloth. And when nothing came of her efforts, she penned a letter to then President Franklin Roosevelt detailing her proposal (which included a hand-sketched diagram) and closing by making a plea to his conscience.

"We can't let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or two to open, enabling the enemy to take lives that might be saved had the box been taped with strong tape that can be opened in a split second.

Please, Mr. President, do something about this at once; not tomorrow or soon, but now," she wrote.

Oddly enough, Roosevelt passed Stoudt's recommendation on to military officials, and in two weeks time, she received notice that her suggestion is being considered and not too long after was informed that her proposal had been approved.

The letter also commended her idea was of "exceptional merit."

Before long, Johnson & Johnson, which specialized in medical supplies, was assigned and developed a sturdy cloth tape with a strong adhesive that would come to be known as “duck tape,” which garnered the company an Army-Navy "E" Award, an honor given out as a distinction of excellence in the production of war equipment.

So while Johnson & Johnson was officially credited with the invention of duct tape, it’s a concerned mother who will be remembered as the mother of duct tape.   

How duct tape works

The initial iteration that Johnson & Johnson came up with isn’t much different from the version on the market today. Comprised of a piece of mesh cloth, which gives it tensile strength and rigidity to be torn by hand and waterproof polyethylene (plastic), duct tape is made by feeding the materials into a mixture that forms the rubber-based adhesive.

Unlike glue, which forms a bond once the substance hardens, duct tape is a pressure-sensitive adhesive that relies on the degree in which pressure is applied. The stronger the pressure, the stronger the bond, particularly with surfaces that are clean, smooth and hard.

So who uses duct tape?

Duct tape was a huge hit with soldiers due to its strength, versatility and waterproof properties. Used to make all sorts of repairs from boots to furniture, it’s also a popular fixture in the world of motorsports, where crews use strips to patch up dents. Film crews working on-set have a version called gaffer’s tape, which doesn’t leave a sticky residue. Even NASA Astronauts pack a roll when they go on space missions.

Besides repairs, other creative uses for duct tape include strengthening cellular reception on the Apple iPhone 4 and as a form of medical treatment for removing warts called duct tape occlusion therapy, which research hasn’t been proven to be effective.

So is it duct tape or duck tape?

In this case, either pronunciation would be correct. According to Johnson & Johnson’s website, the original green sticky cloth tape got its name during world war II when soldiers started calling it duck tape for the way liquids seem to roll off like water off a duck’s back.

But not long after the war, the company launched a metallic silver version called duct tape after executives discovered it can also be used to seal heating ducts. Interestingly enough, however, scientists at Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted field tests on heating ducts and determined that duct tape was insufficient for sealing leaks or cracks.