5:23pm

Sat July 26, 2014
My Big Break

An Idea That Stuck: How A Hymnal Bookmark Helped Inspire The Post-It Note

Originally published on Tue July 29, 2014 5:19 am

As part of a series called "My Big Break," All Things Considered is collecting stories of triumph, big and small. These are the moments when everything seems to click, and people leap forward into their careers.

For Spencer Silver, a retired chemist at 3M, his big break was the Post-it Note.

It all started when he stumbled on a new type of adhesive that used tiny microspheres.

The adhesive was weak enough that Silver could stick it and reapply it to surfaces without leaving behind any residue. But he had a problem: He didn't know what to do with it.

Then, Silver told his colleague Art Fry about the new adhesive.

"Spencer was talking about his adhesive and I learned a little bit about it," says Fry. "With so many new technologies you file them away in your memory bank and then pull them out when you see problems."

That problem came when Fry was singing in a church choir. He had bookmarked his hymnal with little pieces of paper but when it was time to sing, the pieces of paper fell out.

"Everybody else started singing and I'm still trying to find what page we're on," Fry says. "So I'm looking over the guy's shoulder next to me, trying to find the page."

That's when Fry started to wonder if he could create a bookmark that would stick and peel off the pages without tearing the paper.

He thought of Silver's new microsphere adhesive, and began creating some prototype products.

"I was able to make rudimentary bookmarks at that time and discovered that they weren't just bookmarks, but they were self-attaching notes," he says. "... We could make labels out of them."

The Post-it note was born. But the new product was far from an overnight success.

"It took close to seven years before I had this adhesive on a prototype product like Art developed," says Silver. "And then it took him about six or seven years before it actually went out into the field."

"We had to develop the primers, the backside coating and the machines to make it," Fry says.

Their patience paid off — and Fry says he's just glad he found a solution to his bookmark problem.

"You know, I've got notes that I applied to books in 1974 and they still come off and they still can be re-stuck," he says.

For Silver, he enjoys seeing Post-it Notes in the movies.

"You go to a movie theater, you see somebody's computer screen covered in Post-it Notes," Silver says. "I saw one spy movie where the buxom German spy had a Post-it Note that was folded up in her cleavage so when she leaned back, it exposed the message and then when she leaned forward, it was hidden again."

Fry says he gets a lot of satisfaction from his invention. "An inventor has a chance to intercede in people's lives with their ideas," he says.

Silver agrees. "Part of you is out there in the world," he says. "Now, my adhesive, which previously didn't exist, is out there forever."

Copyright 2014 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

Transcript

ERIC WESTERVELT, HOST:

It's ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR West. Thanks for listening. I'm Eric Westervelt. Time now for our latest installment of our series My Big Break about triumphs big and small. For Spencer Silver, a retired chemist at 3M, his big break was the Post-it note. It all started when he stumbled on a new type of adhesive that used microspheres.

SPENCER SILVER: Actually it's only one or two molecules big. I mean, they're giant molecules because it's a gel. They're cross-linked, they're interconnected.

WESTERVELT: There's a lot of chemistry involved. Basically the adhesive was weak enough that Silver could easily stick and reapply it to surfaces.

SILVER: It will just keep on sticking.

WESTERVELT: The problem was, he didn't know what to do with the adhesive - that is, until he told his colleague, Art Fry, about.

ART FRY: Spencer was talking about his adhesive. And I learned a little bit about it. Well, at that time, I had no idea what I would use it for, but with so many new technologies, you file them away in your memory-bank and then pull them out when you see problems. My inspiration, my big break you might say, was I was singing in the church choir and had marked my music with little pieces of paper. When it was time to sing, some of them had fallen out. Everybody else started singing, and I'm still trying to find what page we're on. So I'm looking over the guy's shoulder next to me, trying to find the page. And I thought, I wonder if I could make a bookmark that would stick to the paper so there wouldn't tear the paper apart if you try to pull it off. And then I thought of Spence's adhesive. Ah hah. Maybe I can make something that will work. I was able to make rudimentary bookmarks at that time and discovered that they weren't just bookmarks, but they were self-attaching notes. We can make tapes, we can make labels out of them.

SILVER: And it's actually a very complex, but elegantly simple solution to a problem. It took close to 7 years before I had this adhesive on something in a prototype product like Art developed. And then it took him - what? - about 6 or 7 years before it actually went out into the field. And I had to really fight to get a patent from the adhesive, and in fact, famously was denied even the chance of filing for an international patent. But that took quite a few years.

FRY: We had to develop the primers, the back size coating and the machines to make it. You know I've got notes that I applied to books in 1974. And they still come off and they still can be re-stuck. You know, you can read a Post-it note forever.

SILVER: There have been interesting applications in the movies for Post-it notes. I saw one spy movie where the buxom German spy had a Post-it note that was folded up in her cleavage so when she leaned back it exposed the message. When she leaned forward, it was hidden again.

FRY: A lot of satisfaction I tell you. An inventor has a chance to intercede in people's lives with their ideas. That's an awful lot of the satisfaction for me you in Post-it notes.

SILVER: It really is. It really is part of you is out there in the world. And now my adhesive, which previously didn't exist, is out there forever.

FRY: Yeah. Well, I hope they keep using Post-it notes.

SILVER: Yeah. Keep using Post-it notes.

WESTERVELT: Art Fry and Spencer Silver, inventors of the Post-it note. We want to hear your story. Send us as an email at My Big Break at npr.org. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.