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Random Genius: The Post-It


A product that stuck because it literally didn't stick.

Stickiness: The Holy Grail of marketing execs. The stickier your product, the more it'll sell. With the Post-it note, however, 3M Corporation (MMM) discovered something unique - a product that stuck because it literally didn't stick.

It all began in 1968, when 3M chemist Spencer Silver discovered his own Holy Grail - an adhesive made out of tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres. The glue was strong enough to bind to a surface, but weak enough to be removed and reused many times. It was, essentially, faulty glue.

Despite profound interest from other 3M chemists -- men and women possessed of the rare ability to find tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres interesting -- Silver's discovery seemed to have no practical use.

Minyanville's Random Genius The adhesive's maiden application was the 3M Post-it Bulletin Board, introduced in the early 1970s. The product was simply a sheet of paper covered in Silver's new glue. Office workers could slap documents onto the board without a pin. But sales were disappointing. 3M didn't know what to do with this stuff.

Silver was stuck.

Enter Art Fry. Art Fry, like Spencer Silver, was a man moved by adhesives. It's 1974, and Fry, a 3M engineer, is playing golf. A colleague mentions a glue that had electrified the halls of 3M Corp some 6 years prior. Despite being told that, sadly, the glue was totally useless, Fry was determined to find a practical use for Silver's creation.

Flash forward to the North Presbyterian Church in North St. Paul, Minnesota. There's Fry, singing in the choir, looking completely confused and flipping through pages. The bookmarks in his hymnal keep falling out, and he keeps losing his place. Suddenly, a light bulb goes off: What if he applied the tacky elastomeric copolymer microspheres to his bookmarks? They would stick easily, but not permanently.

An idea was born: Fry began handing out his sticky-but-not-too-sticky bookmarks to employees at 3M. They were a complete success. Different names for the product were bandied about, from "Jot-and-Jerks" to "Mount-and-Shows." Ultimately, 3M decided to go with "Post-It Notes," piggybacking off their failed Post-It Bulletin Board.

In 1977, 3M test-marketed the first Post-It notes in Tampa, Tulsa, Denver and Richmond, Virginia. Initially, the public wasn't biting. But then came the legendary Boise Blitz: 3M dispatched employees to offices across Boise to personally show workers how to use the notes. It was a huge success, and a full commercial launch followed in 1980. Communication in offices, homes, and everywhere in between would never be the same.

Aside from generating untold profit for 3M, the Post-it Note has become a cultural icon. In 2004, the Museum of Modern Art in New York City celebrated Silver and Fry's invention in its Humble Masterpieces exhibit. Along with the white T-shirt and the safety pin, the Post-it Note was singled out as one of the brightest inventions in modern history.

"Hypertext on a refrigerator door," wrote curator Paola Antonelli. "The Post-It shook the world."
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