Today, we stick a little yellow footnote on a story
of invention. The University of Houston's College
of Engineering presents this series about the
machines that make our civilization run, and the
people whose ingenuity created them.
Post-it notes have been
commonplace since around 1980. All the nicest, and
the most upsetting, things I get in the mail are
written on those little yellow bits of sticky
paper. They bring a human voice to office
Post-its are the product of three stages of
invention. The first stage took place when a 3-M
chemist named Spence Silver played with polymer
cements. I say played because 3-M asks its
technical people to spend 15 percent of their time
trying out new -- even useless -- ideas. Silver
mixed up a batch of glue that violated all the
normal rules of mixing.
And he got a glue that was wrong in every way. It
wasn't very sticky, and it would never dry. When
you pulled glued papers apart, all the glue stuck
either to one paper or the other. It was a useless
product -- or was it?
Silver came up with one use. He covered a bulletin
board with the glue. You could slap on a piece of
paper -- then peel it off later. Nice idea, but
nothing anyone really needed.
Now enter Arthur Fry -- 3-M chemist, mechanic, and
choir director. He knew about Silver's new glue,
and he needed a simple way to mark his hymnal. One
Sunday, his mind on the service, it hit him. With
sticky slips of paper he could temporarily attach
markers to the hymnal. And so the Post-it was born.
First 3-M made Post-it pads and distributed them in
the company. They were wildly popular. 3-M had a
winner. But when they tried to market Post-it pads
in Richmond, Virginia, they bombed. Who'd pay a
dollar for a pack of tiny note-papers?
And here we read the oldest lesson in new
technologies. It is that the technology itself must
teach its use to people. And this wasn't just a
better glue or a better paper clip. Rather, it was
a whole new concept. It was alien to anyone's
Post-it notes were about to go the way of miniature
TVs. Then two 3-M marketers made a last try. They
went door to door -- first in Richmond, then in
Boise. They didn't sell Post-it pads. They gave
them away to businesses. Now they had buyers. They
addicted every office they went into.
So the three parts in this inventive process were
play, reverie, and teaching. Silver created the
adhesive by playing around -- by breaking his own
rules as a chemist. Fry simply let the question of
use ride in an idle corner of his mind until it
bore fruit. And finally, two marketers let Post-its
teach their use to us -- we, who didn't know how
badly we needed them.
I'm John Lienhard, at the University of Houston,
where we're interested in the way inventive minds