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10 Durable Facts About Duct Tape

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Duct tape can be found in the tool box of any self-respecting handyman, but the versatile product's potential extends far beyond home repairs. From its origins in the military to its popularity with NASA, here are some surprising facts about the reliable adhesive.

1. IT WAS INVENTED TO MEET A MILITARY NEED.

Before the invention of duct tape, packages of ammunition that were sent to the military were sealed with wax to keep their contents waterproof. The cardboard flaps were held shut with a strip of paper tape with a tab hanging loose that would allow soldiers to rip open the boxes in a hurry. Because this type of tape wasn’t very strong, the tabs would often tear off in their hands and leave soldiers struggling to free their ammunition in the heat of battle. 

Hoping to solve the problem, Vesta Stoudt, a mother of two Navy sailors and a worker at the Green River Ordnance Plant in Illinois, wrote to President Franklin Roosevelt with an idea: 

"I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same … I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also.  We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved."

Roosevelt passed along the letter to the War Production Board in Washington, D.C., who contacted Johnson & Johnson to develop the product. The result was a strong, waterproof tape that soldiers could still tear apart with their hands in a pinch.

2. THE NAME "DUCK TAPE" CAME FIRST.

Since its origins, the tape has consisted of three major components: a bottom layer of glue, mesh fabric, and a polyethylene plastic coating on top to keep it water-resistant. According to Johnson & Johnson, soldiers nicknamed the material "duck tape" in reference to its ability to repel moisture "like water off a duck’s back."

3. IT OWES ITS STICKINESS TO PHYSICS.

While many adhesives, like Elmer’s glue, need to undergo a physical change in order to stick to something, duct tape works a little differently. Its stickiness is created by a pressure-sensitive adhesive, or PSA, which is a soft polymer blend that employs van der Waals forces to attract two surfaces. These intermolecular forces are weak on their own, but with enough of them, they are capable of supporting very heavy loads (this is the same principle that allows geckos to stick to walls).

"Other adhesives, like glues and epoxies, are liquid when you apply them, but they react chemically and harden," Costantino Creton, a materials scientist at the School of Industrial Physics and Chemistry in Paris, told Chemical and Engineering News. "PSAs have no chemical reaction. They don't change at all. They are in the solid state when you apply them, and they stick in their solid state." This makes duct tape the perfect option if you’re looking for a super strong adhesive that's also removable.

4. YOU CAN’T USE IT IN DUCTS.

Following World War II, duct tape began to catch on in the U.S. as a handy tool for home construction. People were using it to hold metal air ducts together, so the company rebranded the product as "duct tape" and updated it with a matching silver color made from powdered aluminum.

Today, its namesake usage is one of the few things that duct tape isn’t recommended for. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory conducted tests in 1998 to see how well different types of tape performed at sealing ducts, and, compared to the other products, duct tape was the clear loser. "Of all the things we tested, only duct tape failed. It failed reliably and often quite catastrophically," Max Sherman, one of the researchers, told Berkeley Lab Research News. Using duct tape on actual ductwork is now considered a code violation in many buildings.

5. DUCT TAPE HELPED SAVE APOLLO 13. 

Following an explosion aboard the ship’s service module, the three members of the Apollo 13 crew transferred to a lunar module designed to hold two people for 36 hours. They had to find a way to last more than twice that long, and the biggest threat to their survival was the carbon dioxide being created by their own bodies. While they had plenty of square carbon dioxide filters on board, they were incompatible with the lunar module’s round holes. Engineers at NASA devised a solution that involved using cardboard, plastic bags, space suit components, and duct tape that was kept on board to create an adapter that would filter out carbon dioxide. This hack ultimately saved the astronauts’ lives.

This wasn’t the only time duct tape proved to be useful in outer space. The tape has been stowed on board every NASA mission since the early Gemini era. Some of its handy applications include making emergency rover repairs, fixing leaky pipes, and keeping items secure in zero gravity.

6. IT HAS BEEN USED TO PREVENT INFECTION ...

Hospital-acquired infections account for 99,000 preventable deaths in the U.S. each year. In order to safely fight infection while saving doctors time and effort, the Trinity Medical Center system of hospitals in the Midwest came up with a rather simple solution. They used duct tape to mark 3-foot-square “safe zones” extending from the doorway into a patient's room. This allowed physicians to casually converse with their patients without having to change into full sterile gear every time they wanted to check in. Research shows that the duct tape idea saved the hospital system $110,000 a year and 2700 hours of staff time.

7. … AND A WHOLE LOT MORE.

Mythbusters has devoted three entire episodes to exploring some of duct tape’s most extreme applications. The team was able to successfully use duct tape to patch a damaged airplane fuselage, construct a functioning cannon, build a usable bridge, and lift a 5000-pound car. Of the 18 myths they tested, only one was busted (turns out you can’t use duct tape to barricade a car driving at 60 mph).

8. THERE’S AN ANNUAL DUCT TAPE FESTIVAL.

Since 2005, Avon, Ohio has hosted an annual duct tape festival dedicated to celebrating "duct tape, its enthusiasts, and its wacky and fun uses." The event features duct tape sculptures, a duct tape fashion show, and a parade of giant floats constructed using duct tape. 

9. THERE’S DUCT TAPE TO SUIT EVERY NEED.

Specialty varieties of the product include outdoor duct tape, double-sided duct tape, glow-in-the-dark duct tape, and nuclear-grade duct tape (the latter is certified for use in nuclear power plants).

10. WEARING DUCT TAPE TO PROM COULD EARN YOU A SCHOLARSHIP.

Duck brand duct tape offers a rather unusual scholarship to high schoolers who are willing to get creative with their product. Every prom season, they call upon students to design and create their own suits and dresses for the big day using duct tape. The winning couple of the "Stuck at Prom" competition is awarded a $10,000 scholarship each along with an additional $5000 for their high school.

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Weird
Watch Plastic Skeletons Being Made in a 1960s Factory
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The making of human teaching skeletons used to be a grisly affair, involving the manipulation of fresh—or not-so-fresh—corpses. But as this video from British Pathé shows, by the 1960s it was a relatively benign craft involving molded plastic and high temperatures, not meat cleavers and maggots.

The video, accented by groan-worthy puns and jaunty music, goes inside a factory in Surrey that produces plastic skeletons, brains, and other organs for use in hospitals and medical schools. The sterile surroundings marked a shift in skeleton production; as the video notes, teaching skeletons had long come from the Middle East, until countries started clamping down on exporting human remains. Before that, human skeletons in Britain and the United States were often produced with a little help from grave-robbers, known as the Resurrection Men. After being dissected in anatomical classes at medical schools, the stolen corpses were often de-fleshed and transformed into objects for study. The theft of these purloined bodies, by the way, started several of America's first riots. Far better they be made out of plastic.

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History
Assault, Robbery, and Murder: The Dark History of "Bedsheet Ghosts"
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Wearing his finest black outfit, Francis Smith stared nervously at the three judges in London’s main criminal courthouse. A mild-mannered excise tax collector, Smith had no known criminal history and certainly no intention to become the centerpiece of one of 19th century England’s most unusual murder trials. But a week earlier, Smith had made a criminally foolish mistake: He had shot and killed what he believed to be a ghost.

The spectators inside the courthouse sat hushed as the prosecutor and a cross-examiner questioned about half a dozen eyewitnesses. Each person had seen Smith in the village of Hammersmith (now a part of London) the night of the crime, or they had previously seen the ghost that Smith was zealously hunting. One such eyewitness, William Girdler, the village night-watchman and Smith’s ghost-hunting partner, had not only seen the white-sheeted specter lurking across the street—he had chased it.

“When you pursued it,” the cross-examiner asked, “how did it escape?”

“Slipped the sheet or table-cloth off, and then got it over his head,” Girdler responded. “It was just as if his head was in a bag.”

“How long had the neighborhood been alarmed with its appearance?”

“About six weeks or two months.”

“Was the alarm great and general?”

“Yes, very great.”

“Had considerable mischief happened from it?”

“Many people were very much frightened.”

Girdler was telling the truth. The people of Hammersmith had reported seeing a ghost for weeks now, and they were terrified: The specter was verifiably violent. It assaulted men and women, and during its two month campaign of harassment and intimidation, it had successfully evaded capture. Rumors swirled that it could manifest from graves in an instant, and sink back into the mud just as quickly. At the time, the magazine Kirby’s Wonderful and Scientific Museum reported that the ghost was “so clever and nimble in its retreats, that they could never be traced.”

When Ann Millwood took the stand, the cross-examiner asked if she was familiar with these reports.

The Hammersmith Ghost.
The Hammersmith ghost

“Yes, I heard great talk of it,” Millwood explained, “that sometimes it appeared in a white sheet, and sometimes in a calf-skin dress, with horns on its head, and glass eyes.” That wasn’t all. The ghost also reportedly took the shape of Napoleon Bonaparte; other accounts said that its eyes radiated like glow-worms and that it breathed fire.

It must have been incredibly difficult for Millwood to describe the ghost’s appearance, especially in front of a public audience. The ghoul she characterized looked nothing like her late brother Thomas, the young man whom Francis Smith had mistakenly murdered.

 
 

In 19th century Britain, seeing a ghost—at least, a person dressed up as one—was not uncommon. Ghost impersonating was something of a fad, with churchyards and cobblestoned alleyways regularly plagued by pranksters, louts, and other sheet-wearing hoaxsters who were up to no good.

Historian Owen Davies tracks the origin of ghost impersonators in his wide-ranging book, The Haunted: A Social History of Ghosts, tracing the first reports of fake ghosts to the Reformation, when critics of Catholicism accused the Church of impersonating the dead to convert doubters. (According to one account by the reformer Erasmus, a priest once fastened candles to a cast of crabs and released them in a dark graveyard in hopes of imitating the lost, wandering souls of purgatory.)

But for most ghost impersonators, candle-strapped crustaceans were unnecessary; all you needed was a white sheet. Up until the 19th century, the bodies of the poor weren’t buried in coffins but simply wrapped in fabric—sometimes the sheet of the deathbed—which would be knotted at the head and feet. Ghost impersonators adopted the white sheet as their de facto wardrobe as early as 1584, when Reginald Scott, a member of parliament and witchcraft aficionado, wrote that, “one knave in a white sheet hath cozened [that is, deceived] and abused many thousands that way.” It’s from this practice that the trope of a white-sheeted ghost originated.

Seventeenth and 18th century Britain are sprinkled with accounts of phony phantoms. Take Thomas Wilmot, a famed crook and highwayman who once disguised himself as a spirit to steal money. (His appearance—chalked-up skin and a sheet-bound head—sent a table of gamblers scrambling for an exit. Wilmot pocketed the cash they left on the table.) And by the 1760s, so many white-sheeted pranksters were prowling in cemeteries that annoyed citizens were paying bounties to get rid of them. According to the Annual Register, one ghost in southern Westminster “struck such terror into the credulous inhabitants thereabouts, that those who could not be brought to believe it a ghost, entered into a subscription, to give five guineas to the person, who would seize him.”

These pranks had consequences. In 1792, a ghost impersonator in Essex spooked a farm-worker steering a wagon; the horses jumped, the driver tumbled, and his leg was crushed by one of the wagon’s wheels. He died from his injuries. Twelve years later, soldiers in London’s St. James’s Park spotted the specter of a headless woman, an event that authorities took very seriously, if only because it was distracting—and reportedly harming—its security guards. In the 1830s, a ghost impersonator was tried for manslaughter because he literally frightened an 81-year-old woman to death.

It was dangerous for the so-called ghosts, too. In 1844, six men chased a ghost impersonator and beat him so badly that he had to visit the hospital. In 1888, a mob of 50 villagers—all armed with sticks—surrounded a “ghost” and only released him after he agreed to donate money to a local infirmary. (Some ghost-busts startled investigators for other reasons: Davies writes that, in 1834, an investigation of an unoccupied haunted house revealed “nothing more than some boisterous love-makers.”)

Like many other pastimes in 19th century Britain, ghost impersonating was a gendered activity: Women, especially young female servants, were often restricted to mimicking poltergeist activity indoors—rapping on doors, moving furniture, throwing rocks at windows—while the sheet-wearing hijinks were reserved for young men who, far too often, had scuzzy intentions.

Most accounts of ghost impersonating, both modern and historical, gloss over the fact that men often used their ghostly cover to intimidate, harass, sexually assault, and even rape women. In his precise and critical account of ghost impersonators, Spirits of an Industrial Age, the historian Jacob Middleton argues that ghost impersonating was not only the domain of juvenile pranksters, but also that of sexual predators. This was made most painfully clear during the 1830s, the height of hauntings by “Spring-Heeled Jack.”

Spring-Heeled Jack.
Spring-Heeled Jack
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

Every day, London’s women had to contend not only with the persistent threat of cads and street harassers, but also with men the press dubbed “Monsters,” menaces who stalked, grabbed, groped, slashed, and stabbed women in the breasts and buttocks. These criminals were piquerists, people who took sexual pleasure in piercing the skin of women, and a spate of attacks in the 1780s put all of London at unease. In the early 1800s, these boors started to take cover by dressing as ghosts. Spring-Heeled Jack, called a “monster in human form,” was among them: Hiding in alleyways after sunset, he would seek lone women, knock on their doors, and attempt to tear away their clothes with hooks. Thanks to London’s sensationalist press, tales of Spring-Heeled Jack would bloat into urban legend.

But even before Spring-Heeled Jack, on a normal evening, the women of Hammersmith were justified in feeling worried about stepping outside after dark. Organized police forces were a relatively new idea in Great Britain, and solitary neighborhoods such as Hammersmith were protected by little more than a roving constable or watchman. Reports of the Hammersmith ghost intensified that anxiety. (The community's men weren’t much help. As the Morning Post reported, “[The ghost] was seen on Monday evening last pursuing a woman, who shrieked dreadfully. Although there were four male passengers in the stage coach, which passed at the time, not one durst venture to the rescue of the distressed female.”) It wasn’t until weeks of attacks that bands of locals, their bellies sloshing with ale supplied by the nearest public house, began taking to the streets to stop the menace.

It was at the intersection of these two sad facts that the tragedy at Hammersmith unfolded: Francis Smith went out on January 3, 1804 to catch a ghost, while Thomas Millwood went out to ensure that his wife, who was walking home alone in the dark, did not meet one.

 
 

Thomas Millwood was told he resembled the Hammersmith ghost. A bricklayer, Millwood wore a white jacket, white trousers, and a white apron, an ensemble that scared a carriage-riding couple one dark Saturday night. When the passerby exclaimed to his wife, “There goes the ghost!” Millwood turned and uncorked a few colorful and unprintable words, asking if the man wanted “a punch in the head.”

After the incident, a family member named Phoebe Fullbrooke implored Millwood to change his wardrobe at night. “Your clothes look white,” she said. “Pray do put on your great coat, that you may not run any danger.” Millwood mumbled something about how he hoped the town’s vigilantes would catch the ghost, but he neglected the advice and continued walking home in his white work clothes.

A few nights later, Francis Smith and William Girdler went ghost hunting.

Compelled by reports of the ghost’s violence, the men carried firearms. Hammersmith’s spirit had choked a man and the village swirled with rumors that it had even attacked a pregnant woman who later died of shock. According to one report, the apparition caused “so much alarm, that every superstitious person in that neighborhood had been filled with the most powerful apprehensions.” But superstitions mattered little. Ghost or not, there was undoubtedly a public menace in Hammersmith, and people wanted it gone. A bounty of 10 pounds would be awarded to anybody who caught it.

A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in 'The Newgate Calendar.'
A depiction of Francis Smith hunting the Hammersmith ghost in The Newgate Calendar.
Wikimedia Commons // Public Domain

That same night, Thomas Millwood stopped at his father’s house and began chatting with his sister Ann. Sometime between 10 and 11 p.m., she suggested he leave and escort his wife, who was still in town, back home. “You had better go,” Ann said. “It is dangerous for your wife to come home by herself.” Millwood agreed and stepped outside, wearing his white bricklayer’s clothes. He didn’t know that he was walking down the same unlit lane as Francis Smith, shotgun in tow.

When Smith spotted the white figure gliding in his direction, he lifted his fowling piece to his shoulder and yelled, “Damn you, who are you? Stand, else I’ll shoot you.” The air stood silent. He yelled a second time and stared down the barrel. Not hearing any response, Smith fired.

Millwood’s sister heard the gunshot and screamed for Thomas, but, like Smith, she heard no response. She later found her brother lying face up on the dirt lane, his face stained black with gunpowder, his white clothes stained red.

 
 

The Caledonian Mercury reported the sad news later that week: “We have to announce to the public an event, in some of its circumstances so ludicrous, but in its result so dreadful, that we fear if the reader should even laugh with one side of his mouth, he must of necessity cry with the other.”

The moment the smell of spent gunpowder hit his nose, Smith knew he’d made a mistake. Millwood had been killed instantly; the shot entered his lower left jaw and exited through the back of his neck. Smith barged into the White Hart pub in visible distress, possibly in shock, and waited to be arrested. One week later, he stood trial at London’s Old Bailey courthouse. The jury deliberated for 45 minutes before returning with a conviction of manslaughter.

The three judges rejected the sentence.

“The Court have no hesitation whatever with regard to the law,” Justice Rooke exclaimed, “and therefore the verdict must be—‘Guilty of Murder’ or ‘a total acquittal from want to evidence.’” In other words, the jury could not be wishy-washy. Smith was either guilty of murder, or not guilty of murder—the jury needed to decide.

Within minutes, Smith was convicted of murder. He was sentenced to hang the next Monday; his body would be dissected in the name of science.

Reports of Smith’s trial were lurid. As the Newgate Calendar tells it, “When the dreadful word ‘Guilty!’ was pronounced [Smith] sank into a state of stupefaction exceeding despair.” His feelings were likely intensified by the admission of John Graham, a Hammersmith shoemaker who days earlier admitted to starting the Hammersmith ghost hoax. (Graham began impersonating the specter to scare his apprentices, who he complained were filling his children’s heads with nonsense about ghosts. Unfortunately, his prank appears to have inspired violent copycats to engage in what the Caledonian Mercury called “weak, perhaps wicked frolic.”)

In the end, Smith would be lucky. His sentence was sent to His Majesty King George III, who not only delayed the execution but eventually granted Smith a full pardon.

The Hammersmith ghost trial, however, would haunt England’s legal system for almost another two centuries. Smith’s case would remain a philosophical head-scratcher: If somebody commits an act of violence in an effort to stop a crime from occurring—only to realize later that they were mistaken and that no crime was being committed—is that person still justified in using violence? Or are they the criminal? British law would not be make room for this gray area until the 1980s.

Meanwhile, the tragedy in Hammersmith failed to deter England’s many ghost impersonators. Pranksters and creeps alike continued wearing bedsheets in dark cemeteries and alleyways for almost another century. In fact, the ghost of 1803 and 1804 would not be the last specter to haunt the village of Hammersmith. Two decades later, a ghost would return. But this time, villagers whispered rumors that this haunting was real, caused by the angry soul of a white-clad bricklayer named Thomas Millwood.

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