The Accidental Invention of the Post-It Note

May 4, 2024

Post-It Notes

Post-It Notes are those colorful, sticky pieces of paper that help us remember important items or things to do. They are found in offices, homes, and classrooms around the world and have revolutionized the way we communicate and organize our thoughts. But we might never have had Post-It Notes if a scientist hadn’t stumbled upon what initially seemed like a failed experiment.

In 1968, Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M, was working on a project to create a super-strong adhesive, but what he created instead was an adhesive that stuck lightly to surfaces but didn’t bond to them. Silver discovered that the adhesive had microspheres that allowed the substance to be sticky but could also allow it to be removed from surfaces easily.

Silver knew he had created something unique but couldn’t determine its use. That didn’t stop him from telling his colleagues about the substance he had discovered and how there must be an application for it somewhere.

post it note microscope
Microscopic view of the adhesive on Post-It Notes (magnified 555x) Margalob/Wikimedia

Another scientist at 3M named Art Fry had a different sort of problem in 1974. While practicing with his church choir every Wednesday night, Fry would use small scraps of paper to mark the pages in his hymnal to the hymns the choir would sing. When Sunday came, Fry would discover that the scraps had all fallen out from the pages he had marked.

Fry remembered a seminar Silver gave about his discovery of the adhesive microspheres. He thought this might be the way he could mark his pages without the scraps of paper falling out and without tearing the pages when he wanted to remove the bookmarks. He approached Silver about developing a product based on this idea.

They got to work and were soon writing messages to each other around the office with notes using the new adhesive. They realized the notes could be more than just bookmarks; they could be a new way to communicate.

Fry used the 3M headquarters as their test site and distributed the adhesive notes to the entire company. The employees loved them, and 3M decided to roll out the notes as one of its products. They were initially trialed in four cities under the name Press ‘n Peel in 1977.

The rollout had mixed results until marketers decided to give out a massive number of samples directly to consumers. This became known as the Boise Blitz because it was launched in Boise, Idaho. The marketing effort was a huge success, and 90% of people who tried the notes said they would buy it in the future.

On April 6, 1990, Post-It Notes debuted in stores around the US. The initial product was only Canary Yellow, simply because a lab next to 3M only had scrap pieces of paper in that color. Post-It Notes are now found in more than 150 countries in many different shapes, colors, and sizes, and they’ve been used in the background of numerous movies and television shows.

Silver and Fry were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010. Silver had 22 US patents to his name, and Fry received a patent for the Post-It titled “repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material” in 1993. Both finished their careers at 3M.

Source: 3M, National Inventors Hall of Fame, CNN

About the author 

Daniel Ganninger - The writer, editor, and chief lackey of Knowledge Stew, the author of the Knowledge Stew line of trivia books, and editor of Fact World and the Knowledge Stew sister site on Medium, our ad-free subscription sites. I hope you learn many new things here that add to your knowledge.

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