man applying adhesive tape on auto

It’s hard to imagine the world without tape. The film industry is a virtual slave to the tape. Before the tape, there was glue, fabric, paper, animal skin, and string. We bring you a brief look into the adhesive tape history.

Doctor Horace Day

Pressure-sensitive adhesive (PSA), a key component of adhesive tape variants, was first developed in 1845 by Dr. Horace Day. He made the tape by combining India rubber, pine gum, turpentine, litharge (a yellow lead oxide). As a result, it was the first “rubber-based” adhesive and Dr. Day used it in his practice as a surgical plaster.

Pressure-Sensitive Adhesive

The next major application for a pressure-sensitive adhesive tape came from the auto industry in the 1920s. Two-toned automobiles were becoming increasingly popular. Manufacturers needed an efficient way to produce a clean edge where two colors met, and still maintain the production speed. Each time the areas masked off with paper, held in place with cloth surgical tape, the solvents in the newly-sprayed paint would seep through the cloth causing it to stick to the surface.

Engineer Richard Drew

In 1925 Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company solved this problem with the invention of masking tape. It is a tan paper backing with a rubber adhesive coating which in combination with various oils and resins becomes tacky. Engineer Richard Drew had his hand on the thing.

Richard Drew inventor of adhesive tape
Richard Drew was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007. (SmithsonianMag)

Drew was born in Saint Paul, Minnesota on June 22, 1899. He spent his youth playing banjo in dance halls, eventually earning enough money to attend the University of Minnesota. But he only lasted 18 months in the engineering program. Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company soon hired him as a lab tech.

Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company

The company was then in the business of manufacturing sandpaper. Consequently, he spent the next two years developing a tape that was sticky yet easy to remove. He experimented with everything from vegetable oil to natural tree gums. A company executive, William McKnight, told Drew to stop messing around and get back to his regular job, which he did, but Drew kept doing tape experiments on his own time.

Scotch Tape Invention

That same year, Drew also came out with his waterproof transparent tape after months of work. The tape took advantage of newly invented cellophane. But the material wasn’t easy to work with, often splitting or tearing in the machine. The adhesive was amber-colored, which ruined the cellophane’s transparency. Afterwards, Drew and his team went on to invent adhesive-coating machines and a new, colorless adhesive. The use of the term Scotch in the name was a pejorative meaning “stingy” in the 1920s and 1930s. It stuck with the brand until today.

Scotch adhesive tape dispenser
The use of the term Scotch in the name was a pejorative meaning “stingy” in the 1920s and 1930s. (SmithsonianMag)

New Materials

From this beginning the pressure-sensitive adhesive industry began to grow. Consequently, new tapes were developed and new applications for them were found. Hence, the adhesive component was changed to synthetic rubber compounds. Also, a new transparent backing material developed from regenerated cellulose, called cellophane. In the 1950s cellulose acetate and its copolymers came into use as tape backings. Similarly, synthetic polymers combined with resins came into use as adhesives. Drew died in 1980, at the age of 81. Finally, the National Inventors Board posthumously inducted him into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2007.

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