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Culture

Richard Gurley Drew, the man who invented sticky tape

June 22 marks the birthday of the American inventor who created both masking tape and cellophane tape.

Masking tape made it a lot easier to pimp your ride.

3M

The humble roll of cellophane tape is an occupant of every kitchen's junk drawer. It's one of those workaday items we simply take for granted.

When you stop to think about it, it's actually rather ingenious.

College didn't stick with Richard Gurley Drew, who was born in Minnesota on June 22, 1899. He studied mechanical engineering for a year at the University of Minnesota before dropping out.

Then he came upon an idea that held fast.

At the age of 22, he was hired by a sandpaper manufacturer. In the early 1920s, while he was testing sandpaper samples at an auto-body shop, something caught his attention: the two-tone paint jobs popular on cars at the time were a real hassle to execute.

This was because there was no efficient way to get a clean divide between the paint colors. The workers would use butcher's paper stuck to the car with adhesive so strong that it would leave behind a tacky residue. Drew realized a gentler-pressure adhesive that still protected against bleed would be ideal.

Richard Gurley Drew's patent for clear adhesive tape was filed in May 1928 and awarded in May 1930.

USPTO

He began experimenting with crepe paper for flexibility, coupled with the adhesive the company used for sandpaper. In 1925, Drew's masking tape, the first paper-backed, pressure-adhesive tape, hit the market.

This came to be known as Scotch Brand Masking Tape, after a worker at the auto-body shop where it was tested became frustrated because there was too little adhesive on it.

"Take this back to your Scotch bosses," he allegedly said, "and tell them to put more adhesive on it." At the time, Scottish people were thought to be stingy, and "Scotch" was used as a pejorative.

The name stuck.

Drew continued experimenting, and in 1930 his waterproof transparent cellulose tape arrived, called Scotch Brand Cellulose Tape. This was a world first, according to 3M, which owns the Scotch brand. The two products proved so popular that, in 1943, the company gave Drew directorship of the new Products Fabrication Laboratory.

Here, he and his team invented reflective sheeting to improve road signs, breathable surgical tapes, foam tapes, face masks, electrical insulation and other adhesive experiments. By the time he retired in 1962, Drew was listed as an inventor or co-inventor on over 30 US patents.

He died in December 1980 and was posthumously inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.