Serendipitous Invention – Post-it

Serendipitous Invention – Post-itIntroduction: The Three Princes of Serendip, where Serendip is the Classical Persian name for Sri Lanka, is a fairy tale in which the protagonists ‘were always making discoveries, by accidents and sagacity, of things they were not in quest of.’ Based on this, Horace Walpole coined the word serendipity in 1754 to mean inventions or discoveries made by accident. Science and technology offer many anecdotes of serendipitous discoveries and inventions. Here is the third such story in a series about serendipitous, patented inventions.

In the late 1970s, the personal secretaries of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies received a letter on the letterhead of the personal secretary of the chairman of 3M®. The letter was accompanied by samples of canary yellow slips of paper, each of which had a patch of adhesive coating on one face. One could write a note on those slips of paper and stick them to any surface. When the use of the note was over, one could remove it without trouble, and no residue of glue would remain on the surface to which it was stuck. That longwinded explanation describes what everyone knows today as the ubiquitous Post-it®. It even has its own avatar for the computer and mobile age, as well as other such apps, such as Sticky Note®.

There was a long history behind Post-it before it became a commercial success. In 1968, Dr, Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was working on developing a strong adhesive for the aircraft industry to bond dissimilar materials. However, instead of creating a stronger adhesive, he accidentally created a weak pressure-sensitive adhesive. He also found that it had some unique properties. One of them was that it was reusable without leaving a residue. Silver is said to have struggled to find a use for his invention. He tried to promote its advantages to colleagues, but it fell on deaf ears and only earned him the nickname “Mr. Persistent”.

In 1974, however, another 3M employee, Art Fry, heard Silver talk about the reusable adhesive at a seminar. It so happened that Fry sang in a choir and was frustrated because he was losing his bookmarks for the hymns during practice. He realised that Silver’s adhesive could be used to create temporary notes. It was Fry who suggested using the adhesive on the backs of slips of paper. A team within 3M began writing messages to one another using the prototype. They realised the potential of the idea, but it took several years for the product to gain support within the company.

Finally, in 1977, the removable notes were released in four cities of the US under the name “Press n’ Peel.” It managed to get only a lukewarm reception. However, there was eventually a massive marketing effort and a rebranding campaign. The name was changed to Post-It Notes and was launched across the US on April 6, 1980. The personal secretaries of the CEOs of Fortune 500 companies receiving the samples were a part of the advertising campaign. The secretaries found it extremely useful and wanted more. From there, the demand grew and grew. That is when the product caught on and became a great success. The product’s ease of use and convenience contributed to its immediate success.

Thus, this is not only a story of making a success out of a supposed failure but also a story about persistence and innovative marketing. It involved placing the product directly into the hands of the users, creating curiosity, and encouraging them to buy the product for themselves. The product’s unique adhesive properties and reusability made it a popular solution for temporary notes, labels, and bookmarks. As the inventor, Silver himself said, “Post-it was a product nobody thought they needed until they did.” The original adhesive has led to many other products of 3M and other variants of Post-it, too. 3M has many patents covering various aspects of the adhesive and its applications. There are nearly fifty patents assigned to 3M, with Silver and Fry as at least one of the inventors.

Author: J L Anil Kumar

First Published By: Lexology here