Post-It notes — Invented by accident!

Can you imagine?! A world without Post-It notes. The fact is, one of the mainstays of office supplies, almost never existed…

Post-It notes were invented by accident. In 1968, Spencer Silver, an employee of 3M, was trying to create super strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry. Instead though, he managed to create an incredibly weak, pressure sensitive adhesive agent called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres (catchy eh?!). In the words of Jennifer Anniston et al, “Here Comes the Science Bit…..”

On the molecular level, this substance resembled the pebbled skin of a rugby ball. This characteristic sabotaged its bonding power; the tiny spaces between the microspheres made it impossible to get complete contact between the adhesive and another surface. In layman’s terms, it was a glue that wasn’t very sticky! An epic fail in terms of the intended objective — I certainly wouldn’t want to be booked onto a plane held together by glue that didn’t stick very well!

But Silver saw his invention as a challenging puzzle. What could an underachieving glue be used for? After pondering the question and posing it to many colleagues, he finally came up with the idea of a sticky bulletin board. Sales were disappointing. Not only did things stick to the board, but dust and lint stuck to it as well. It wasn’t portable and fundamentally, it wasn’t needed. Traditional bulletin boards performed their intended task perfectly well. Silver spent 5 years trying to convince his colleagues at 3M that a use must exist for his unsticky glue, to no avail.

It was some years’ later when chemical engineer and 3M employee, Art Fry was singing in his local church choir, that the idea for sticking the glue to the paper, rather than the board came about. Fry had to continually deal with accidentally losing his song markers in his hymn book whilst singing. From this, he eventually had the stroke of genius to use some of Silver’s adhesive to help keep the slips of paper in the hymnal.

A Eureka moment, yes?? Well, no. Not quite. It took another 7 years of product development (the initial prototypes left some of the glue on the surfaces the notes were stuck to) and failed marketing attempts before 3M were convinced to launch the product in the US and then, eventually, worldwide.

Even the colour of the original Post-It Notes was an accident. The bright yellow seems ideal. A perfect contrast against white paper, making its presence immediately felt.

Even psychologically, jotting an idea, an inspired comment on a bright yellow piece of paper seems fitting somehow. A true “lightbulb” moment. But none of these factors were present in deciding on the colour. When, Art Fry and his colleagues were experimenting with prototypes etc., they needed to borrow some paper from the lab next door to the one they were working on. That paper happened to be bright yellow. So, the product was developed. The prototype was perfect.

The employees of 3M loved Post-It Notes and thought they were great. The issue lay in convincing everyone else. The problem with the marketing was essentially that people didn’t feel they needed the product. It had and continues to have many uses. But it was the kind of product that, until you’d had it, used it and felt almost bereft without it, you wouldn’t really understand how much you “needed” it.

In the end, 3M launched a marketing campaign whereby they gave out thousands of free samples of Post-It Notes to homes, offices, hospitals and businesses in Boise, Idaho. The campaign became known as the “Boise Blitz”. The re-order rate was 90% — double the best initial rate 3M had ever seen for any other product they’d introduced. Two years later, the Post-It note was released throughout the United States.

So after 5 years of constant rejection for the adhesive and another 7 years in development and initial rejection, Post-It notes were finally a hit. And quite a big hit as well. A profit was made in the first year. In 1998, when Post-It Notes filed a lawsuit against a copycat competitor, a 3M company spokesperson said that worldwide sales of Post-It Notes and their spin-offs was around one billion dollars per year. Today, they’re one of the top 5 best-selling office supplies in the World.

So the next time you’re writing a little note to put in your loved one’s sandwich box (if you’re that way inclined) or communicating possession of a half empty, slightly manky bottle of mayonnaise in the office fridge, just remember the tenacity of Silver and Fry; the humble Post-It Notes beginnings and its eventual rise to one of the mainstays of office supplies.

If you are now looking to purchase some post-it notes, please look at our range here.

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