Duct tape: without it, without doubt, the world would fall apart.
Backstage, production crews the world over call it gaffer (although, strictly speaking, gaffer is vinyl-coated for a matt finish, duct is shinier). Others refer to it as Duck Tape (although, strictly speaking, that’s a brand of duct tape, doubtless its most successful brand, created in 1975 by Jack Kahl, who cheekily trademarked the name it had in its original incarnation back in the 40s).
However you refer to it, you’ve no doubt used it at some point in your life. If you haven’t, what did you use to stick that loose side panel back on your car, or the suction tube to the hoover, or your glasses back together, or the note on the front door for the delivery man…
One of the best things about duct tape is you can tear it. I get a frisson of satisfaction every time I remember I don’t need my teeth to rip a piece off. No scissors or extra hands required, unlike fiddlesome and overrated Scotch Tape. Unroll, tear, apply. What a great invention: more versatile than a swiss army knife, more situation-saving than Lassie.
Even life saving. Apollo 13 astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise wouldn’t have made it back to Earth alive without their trusty roll of duct tape which they used, along with plastic bags, cardboard and hoses from their space suits, to construct makeshift carbon dioxide filters. (I love the fact they took duct tape to the moon!) And only this year, hiker Cody Michael and his dog were found in the Californian wilderness after air crew spotted his help message spelt out in big letters using – you guessed it – duct tape.
This life-saving potential of duct tape was the reason it came into being. It was Vesta Stoudt who first had the idea. Stoudt, mother of two US Navy sailors, happened to be working in an Illinois ordnance plant during World War II inspecting wooden cases packed with cartridges. She noticed the paper tape used to seal together the top and bottom of the cases wasn’t strong enough, especially when wet, which is why it would often rip off in soldiers hands mid-battle when they were desperately in need of more ammo. In her letter to President Franklin Roosevelt in early 1943 she wrote: “Now your son, my son and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or his knife if he is lucky enough to have one, nine chance out of ten he hasn’t any.”
Imagine that: trying to get your fingernail under the edge of the tape to prise it off while enemy shells are exploding all around you. Maddening is not the word. Stoudt prototyped a stronger, waterproof cloth tape that didn't rip when being pulled off, but the government inspectors she showed it to ignored its benefits. Which led her, as a last resort, to write to the President.:“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 acted quickly, sending the idea to the War Production Office, who wrote to Stoudt saying her idea “was of exceptional merit" (and encouraging her to send any more she may have!). They contacted Johnson & Johnson, makers of surgical adhesive tape, who went on to produce the first rolls of Duck Tape. Soldiers in the field named it “100 mile an hour tape” and began using it for all sorts of purposes other than sticking cartridge cases together.
A timely, creative solution; a persistent protagonist; a brilliantly enduring and adaptable product whose usefulness has far exceeded its initial reason for existing. Next time you use duct tape remember Vesta Stoudt, the concerned, ingenious mother, and all those soldiers (and astronauts) whose lives were saved by her invention. And don’t forget to pack a role of it when you go on holiday.