If you hack things in the real world, you probably have one or more rolls of duck tape. Outside of the cute brand name, many people think that duck tape is a malapropism, but in truth it is the type of cloth traditionally used in our favorite tape: cotton duck. However, as we’ll see, it’s not entirely wrong to call it duct tape either. Whatever you call it, a cloth material has an adhesive backing and is coated with something like polyethylene.
Actually, the original duck tape wasn’t adhesive at all. It was simply strips of cotton duck used for several purposes, including making shoes and wrapping steel cables like the ones placed in 1902 at the Manhattan Bridge. By 1910, the tape was made with adhesive on one side and soaked in rubber, found use in hospitals for binding wounds. In May 1930, Popular Mechanics advised melting rubber from an old tire and adding rosin to create a compound to coat cotton tape, among other things.
Duck Tape Needed a Champion
Duck tape didn’t get really famous, though, until World War II. It came down to a worker at an ammunition plant in Dixon, Illinois, named Vesta Stoudt. Her job was to pack ammunition boxes, and she realized that how they were sealed would make it difficult for soldiers to open them rapidly.
She devised a cloth tape seal with a tab that would seal the boxes adequately but come off rapidly when needed. She showed it to her management and government inspectors, but nothing came of it.
Some people might have just let it drop, but not Vesta. She went to the top, writing President Roosevelt a letter in 1943. The president passed it along to the Ordnance Department of the War Production Board. They wrote Vesta back in a few weeks to inform her they loved the idea and thought it had “exceptional merit.”
Vesta received the War Worker’s Award for her idea, and Revolite — part of Johnson and Johnson — was tasked to make a suitable cotton tape sealant. Duck tape, as we know it, was born.
It Really Stuck
Once it made its mark on ammo boxes, it was soon standard issue to repair military gear. Returning home, the soldiers wanted more duck tape to do home repairs, so it became a popular hardware store item. The Melvin A. Anderson company acquired the rights in 1950 and made a silver version and marketed it for wrapping ducts — duck tape as a duct tape. (Although ironically, modern science has shown that it’s basically the only thing that you shouldn’t use for that purpose.)
By 1971, the company had been sold and became Manco, and it has since gone through several other ownership changes, but it now controls about 40% of the duck tape market in the United States.
Modern tape isn’t necessarily made of cotton. Some use polyester, nylon, rayon, or fiberglass. A very thin bit of fabric laminates to low-density polyethylene. Powdered aluminum gives the tape the classic gray color, but other pigments also make colorful versions. If you want to see how it is made, check out the [Insider] video below.
Most rolls are hand-held size, but in 2005 Henkel — the owner of what had been Manco at the time — produced 64-inch rolls that weighed 650 pounds!
Starting with early Gemini missions, every NASA spaceflight carries some duck tape. It found use in fixing the oxygen situation during Apollo 13 and repaired a rover fender on Apollo 17.
While it doesn’t sound like Vesta was recognized as an engineer, we will recognize her as a fellow hacker. She saw something that could be made better, and she made it better. Then she made sure that better technology would get out in the field. If it weren’t for Vesta Stoudt, duck tape might not be the ubiquitous commodity it is today. You have to wonder what would take its place.
(Banner image: “Duck Tape” by Mike Mozart.)