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How Does Scratch and Sniff Work?

Scratch and sniff was born of the noble endeavor of making copies. In the dark ages before word processors, inkjet printers, and the Xerox machine, copies of documents were made by placing carbon paper between the sheet you were typing on and the sheet that would become the copy. In the early 1960s, an organic chemist at 3M named Gale Matson developed a way to make ink copies without carbon paper, using a process called microencapsulation.

The Matson process uses two sheets of paper "“ one for the original document and one for the copy "“ on top of one another. The top sheet of paper is coated with microcapsules of colorless ink. When someone writes or types on the paper, the capsules break and release their ink, which mixes with a developer chemical on the second sheet to create a copy.

Not wanting Matson's technology to be a one trick pony, 3M began to search for alternate uses for micro-encapsulation and found that it could be applied to scented oils as well as ink. Scratch 'N Sniff debuted in 1965 and is found in various forms, from stickers to pull-apart perfume sample strips and beyond.

How It Works

1. Scented oil is mixed with a solution of water and water-soluble (capable of being dissolved in water) polymer (3M uses polyoxymethylene urea) in a large vat called a reactor.

2. The mixture is blended at a high speed by a rotary blade. As the oil and polymer solution mix, the oil breaks into very small droplets. After about 12 hours of blending, the droplets are about 20 to 30 microns in size, invisible to the naked eye.

3. When the droplets are the right size, the blending is stopped and a chemical catalyst is added. The catalyst causes the molecular weight of the polymer to increase and become water insoluble. The polymer precipitates out of the water and forms a shell around, or encapsulates, each individual droplet of oil.

4. The reactor is stopped, and the microcapsules are collected and washed to remove any unreacted or unencapsulated materials.

5. The capsules are placed in a tank and mixed with a water base and an adhesive, forming a thick slurry.

6. The slurry is ready to be applied to paper, and there are four basic methods for doing this: silk-screening, web offset printing, flexo-graphic printing (this is what is used for scratch and sniff stickers) and extrusion (a fairly complex printing method used for making perfume and cologne sample strips).

Smelling the finished product is just like smelling anything else. When we scratch the surface of the paper, the microcapsules break and the scented oil travels to our nasal cavity, where the molecules are detected by the olfactory sensory neurons in the olfactory epithelium. A signal is sent to the brain, which translates it, and then we say, "Oooh, banana!"

Click & Sniff

We've come a long way since the birth of Scratch 'N Sniff, and now we don't need micro-encapsulation to smell exotic scents whenever we want. Heck, we don't even need to scratch. Here are some more recent developments in digital scent technology.

DigiScents Inc. in Oakland, California, created the iSmell scent synthesizer. You insert a scent cartridge into the iSmell, which is connected to a computer or video game console, and it releases the scent in short bursts at appropriate times, i.e. when you're playing a first person shooter and get into a firefight, you'll actually get whiffs of gunpowder as you fire rounds. Before you get too excited, PC World named the iSmell one of the 25 Worst Tech Products of All-Time.
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ScenTeck Technologies' Scratch-N-Sniff Pro software and System Scent Card replace the standard vibrating sound waves coming from computer speakers with unique vibrating tones that the brain recognizes not as a sound, but a scent.
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Unleashed, an album by Savannah, Georgia-based musician Zan, is the world's first scent-enabled CD. A gadget called a Scent-Dome plugged into your computer reads code embedded in the CD and releases different scents as the songs play.

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Big Questions
Why Does the Queen Have Two Birthdays?
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images
CHRIS JACKSON, AFP/Getty Images

On April 21, Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II will turn 92 years old. To mark the occasion, there are usually a series of gun salutes around London: a 41 gun salute in Hyde Park, a 21 gun salute in Windsor Great Park, and a 62 gun salute at the Tower of London. For the most part, the monarch celebrates her big day privately. But on June 9, 2018, Her Majesty will parade through London as part of an opulent birthday celebration known as Trooping the Colour.

Queen Elizabeth, like many British monarchs before her, has two birthdays: the actual anniversary of the day she was born, and a separate day that is labeled her "official" birthday (usually the second Saturday in June). Why? Because April 21 is usually too cold for a proper parade.

The tradition started in 1748, with King George II, who had the misfortune of being born in chilly November. Rather than have his subjects risk catching colds, he combined his birthday celebration with the Trooping the Colour.

The parade itself had been part of British culture for almost a century by that time. At first it was strictly a military event, at which regiments displayed their flags—or "colours"—so that soldiers could familiarize themselves. But George was known as a formidable general after having led troops at the Battle of Dettingen in 1743, so the military celebration seemed a fitting occasion onto which to graft his warm-weather birthday. Edward VII, who also had a November birthday, was the first to standardize the June Trooping the Colour and launched a tradition of a monarchical review of the troops that drew crowds of onlookers.

Even now, the date of the "official" birthday varies year to year. For the first seven years of her reign, Elizabeth II held her official birthday on a Thursday but has since switched over to Saturdays. And while the date is tied to the Trooping the Colour in the UK, Commonwealth nations around the world have their own criteria, which generally involve recognizing it as a public holiday.

Australia started recognizing an official birthday back in 1788, and all the provinces (save one) observe the Queen's Birthday on the second Monday in June, with Western Australia holding its celebrations on the last Monday of September or the first Monday of October.

In Canada, the official birthday has been set to align with the actual birth date of Queen Victoria—May 24, 1819—since 1845, and as such they celebrate so-called Victoria Day on May 24 or the Monday before.

In New Zealand, it's the first Monday in June, and in the Falkland Islands the actual day of the Queen's birth is celebrated publicly.

All in all, just another reason it's great to be Queen.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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Big Questions
What Is the Meaning Behind "420"?
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Whether or not you’re a marijuana enthusiast, you’re probably aware that today is an unofficial holiday for those who are. April 20—4/20—is a day when pot smokers around the world come together to, well, smoke pot. Others use the day to push for legalization, holding marches and rallies.

But why the code 420? There are a lot of theories as to why that particular number was chosen, but most of them are wrong. You may have heard that 420 is police code for possession, or maybe it’s the penal code for marijuana use. Both are false. There is a California Senate Bill 420 that refers to the use of medical marijuana, but the bill was named for the code, not the other way around.

As far as anyone can tell, the phrase started with a bunch of high school students. Back in 1971, a group of kids at San Rafael High School in San Rafael, California, got in the habit of meeting at 4:20 to smoke after school. When they’d see each other in the hallways during the day, their shorthand was “420 Louis,” meaning, “Let’s meet at the Louis Pasteur statue at 4:20 to smoke.”

Somehow, the phrase caught on—and when the Grateful Dead eventually picked it up, "420" spread through the greater community like wildfire. What began as a silly code passed between classes is now a worldwide event for smokers and legalization activists everywhere—not a bad accomplishment for a bunch of high school stoners.

Have you got a Big Question you'd like us to answer? If so, let us know by emailing us at bigquestions@mentalfloss.com.

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