The long history of duct tape

Written by Ionela Stetco

duct tape history
Born in the early 1940’s from the brilliant idea of a worried mother, duct tape soon developed up to becoming one of the most used products in the world. Behind a simple item hides a rich and long history of ideas and unexpected adventures.

Vesta Stoudt was mother of two Navy sailors employed in the USA forces during the Second World War. We don’t know what brought her to write a letter to President Roosevelt, if patriotism or the concern for the lives of her sons, in 1943. What we know is that, in that letter, she was the first suggesting to use an adhesive fabric tape to seal the boxes of ammunitions, in order to save precious time during battle. From that advice, Johnson & Johnson developed the first duct tape in history.

 

The early history of duct tape

That product was made of a thin stripe of duck fabric, with a plastic coat and a layer of rubber-based adhesive. During the war, the history of duct tape was confined to the emergency repair of military tools and vehicles, and we had to wait until the end of the conflict to see the product spread out on the market for home applications.

 

“Duck tape” or “duct tape”? The history behind a name

It is a common belief that duct tape, in the years of its early history, used to be called “duck tape”, probably referring to the name of its fabric or to its resistance to water, just like a duck bird. However, according to a research, there is no reference of the name “duck tape” in any document of that time. During the War, the tape simply had no specific name.

 

The Fifties: when duct tape became duct tape

During the Fifties, duct tape was employed in the construction sector to wrap air ducts, with the production of grey colored tapes that could camouflage on the tin. The name “duct tape” was given to the product during those years, referring to this application. In the Fifties, the tape itself assumed many of the features that possesses nowadays.

 

From the Earth to the Moon: duct tape history in NASA’s missions

During the Sixties and the Seventies, duct tape entered NASA’s equipment in space missions. One of the most glorious moments of duct tape occurred in this context, in 1970, when the tape saved the lives of the astronauts on Apollo 13, during a lunar mission. On the spacecraft, an oxygen tank exploded, cutting drastically the air reserves for the following days: the only way to solve the problem was to clean the air from CO2 with specific lithium hydroxide canisters, but some of them weren’t compatible with the openings of the module. After many hours, the engineers came up with a plan to modify the canisters, using duct tape among other tools (see the picture at the head of the article). The idea worked, and the astronauts came back home with no harm.

 

From the Eighties to present time

In the last thirty years, the history of duct tape has been a long tale of research and innovation, which brought the tape to become the flexible and efficient product we all know. Resistance to extreme temperature and heath, introduction of new materials and technologies, production of specific tapes for industrial applications: these are just some of the steps that duct tape has made from the Eighties, confirming as one of the most useful tools ever invented.

 

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