(This obituary appeared in the May 28, 2021 issue of “The Week” magazine.
While I don’t usually borrow items in their entirety for my blog, I did find his story to be of interest and, to some extent, even fun. Hope you do too.)
1941 – 2021
Spencer Silver’s most famous creation at first seemed utterly useless. In 1968, he was working as a research chemist at a 3M lab, tasked with devising an adhesive so strong that it could be used in aircraft construction. The product he came up with was heat resistant, clear, and could be removed from a surface without losing stickiness or leaving a residue. But it was too weak to affix anything heavier than a piece of paper. Still, Silver patented his invention, saying he was certain he had found “a solution waiting for a problem to solve.”
That problem arrived in 1974, when 3M scientist Arthur Fry was at church choir practice and fuming about how the pieces of paper he used to bookmark songs in his hymnal kept falling out. Fry wondered if he could create a sticky bookmark. “Then I thought of Spence’s adhesive,” he said. Fry’s experiments led to the Post-it Note, introduced by 3M in 1980. The company now sells 50 billion Post-its a year, blanketing offices and homes with reminders, messages, and to-do lists.
Silver was born in San Antonio to an accountant father and a secretary mother, said The Wall Street Journal. After studying chemistry in college, Silver joined 3M, known for giving employees freedom “to pursue ideas in the company’s vast laboratories.” He immediately knew the adhesive he’d created was special – even if it couldn’t hold together airplane parts. Under magnification, it had “beautiful, bright, clear crystalline spheres,” he said, “like little glass balls.” Told to shelve his invention, Silver instead began giving seminars for 3M’s product developers, said The New York Times, promoting the adhesive “so assiduously” that he earned the nickname Mr. Persistent.
Originally named Press ‘n Peel pads, the product took off when 3M gave free samples to offices in Boise, said The Washington Post. “First produced in canary yellow,” Post-it Notes are now sold in virtually every shape and color imaginable. “In an irony that brings Silver’s chemical experimentation full circle, the product is also available in a ‘Super Sticky’ incarnation.”
Silver, who received 36 other patents and retired in 1996, drew “almost cosmic meaning” from his unique adhesive. “It doesn’t break down,” he said. “The paper will eventually deteriorate, but the stickiness will always remain.”