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.