Sometimes even what seems an easy idea like the Post-It Note takes time to get right. It took more than ten years for Dr. Spencer Silver’s accidental invention—a not-so-sticky adhesive—to find the use we know it for today. Now, the classic yellow Post-it Note is ubiquitous in almost every office in the US and has become one of manufacturer 3M’s flagship products. They are one of the best-selling office supplies in the world, and an office desk is not complete without them.
Business schools use the Post-it as an example of a rare phenomenon: sometimes, nobody knows there’s a problem until the solution is first created.
The product is deceptively simple: a small square of pale yellow paper with a strip of mildly tacky adhesive. But the chemical properties that go into the Post-it Note’s unique feature—the ability to stick and unstick so easily—are something quite special. And the many coincidences that led to its incredible creation make for a fascination story.
Dr. Silver’s early life
Spencer Ferguson Silver was born in 1941 and grew up in San Antonio, Texas. His lifelong interest in science began when he was in junior high. Spencer graduated from Arizona State University in 1962 with a BS in chemistry and went on to obtain a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder in 1966. He married his wife Linda Anne Martin Silver in 1965, and the couple has two daughters.
Immediately after receiving his doctorate, he went on to work at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company in St. Paul, Minnesota. Better known as 3M, today the company is a multinational conglomerate and number ninety-five on the Fortune 500 list.
Doctor Silver remained employed at 3M until his retirement in 1996.
Silver worked at 3M for thirty years. During his long career there, he was a contributor to more than twenty US patents. His research included immuno-diagnostics, branch block copolymers, and protein immobilization. He returned again and again to the area that would eventually bring him unexpected success: adhesives.
The accidental adhesive
Spencer Silver took the chemistry of his adhesives seriously. He told an interviewer in 2010 that he thought of himself as a “molecular architect.”
In 1968, Silver developed an unusual kind of glue, known as a “repositionable adhesive.” This means that the glue was able to cling easily to a surface, but it could also be easily removed. The substance, at the time, was simply called “Acrylate Co-polymer Microspheres.”
The problem? Silver was trying to achieve the exact opposite effect. His team at the time had the express goal of finding an exceptionally strong adhesive, for use in aircraft construction.
Silver knew that there had to be some way for the peculiar product to be beneficial. His coworkers nicknamed him Mister Persistent. He would always start new conversations about its potential—but his adhesive languished in uselessness for years.
The science behind the glue
If Silver’s adhesive was just a weak glue, it would have been nothing special. The property that made it unique was its pressure-sensitivity. It sticks to a surface quite well, but only at a tangent. Which means that while the glue can be easily peeled off, it doesn’t simply fall, and it’s tough to pull it down. You can demonstrate this by trying to tug a Post-it Note off a surface instead of lifting it. It leaves no adhesive behind on surfaces and retains its stickiness through multiple uses.
Silver and his colleagues painted a bulletin board with the “high tack, low peel, no residue” adhesive. Ironically, the only use they found for the substance was to create a surface for a paper to stick to. Their bulletin board worked well but was never going to be marketable.
A patent for the glue was issued in 1970. It took another four years before anyone had a good idea for what to do with it.
Arthur Fry and the glue rescued from obscurity
Arthur Fry was another 3M employee. Born in 1931 and raised in the Midwest, Fry’s earliest education came in the form of a one-room schoolhouse. Like Silver, he developed his interest in science at a young age, and like Silver he spent his entire career at 3M. Fry and Silver didn’t know each other at first, but in 1973 he heard Silver talk about an adhesive with unique properties but (so far) a disappointing lack of practical application.
Fry was at a rehearsal for his church choir when the idea struck him. (He has called it a “eureka moment.”) The torn pieces of paper he used to mark pages of his hymn book were continually coming loose and falling out, and he found this very inconvenient. Fry thought that a piece of paper that could stick to a page without damaging it would make a handy bookmark.
He knew he had something with that idea. The next day, Fry began his experiments. A strip of Silver’s adhesive at the top of a piece of paper could create a note that could be left anywhere.
A formula to make the adhesive strip stick permanently to paper on one side (the note itself) but temporarily on the other was a challenge. Fry led his team to develop a coating for the note’s paper to keep the adhesive where it belonged. A paper that was not too slick or stiff to write on with a regular pen or pencil was also developed.
Rather than merely trying to explain the new invention, the team also started using it. People in the office would leave messages for their colleagues in a silent demonstration of the sticky note’s usefulness. The notes, passed from colleague to colleague out of pure convenience, spread throughout the company,
Person by person, sticky notes slowly took over the 3M offices.
Making it to the consumer
It took several years for the manufacturing process to get perfected. 3M executives also needed to be convinced that the Post-it Note was a viable product.
Initial marketing tests were lackluster. Without enough samples, company representatives had to resort to describing the product to potential customers, a difficult task for such a deceptively simple product. There wasn’t much enthusiasm, and 3M was close to scrapping the project.
Due to the utter faith that Fry and his colleagues had in the product, they all persisted. They knew they would have a win if Post-it Notes reached the individual consumers.
A larger, more cohesive test was run in Boise, Idaho, by giving away huge amounts of free samples. The 1979 “Boise Blitz” was a huge success, and an incredible 90% of the Idahoans given the sample affirmed that they wanted to purchase the product. The first Post-it Notes were released nationally in 1980 and expanded to Europe and Canada in 1981.
Then it didn’t take long for the product to take off. 3M gave away many free samples and made sure they made their way to the desks of Fortune 500 executives.
By 1981, the team behind the Post-it Note was receiving accolades from 3M, including the “Golden Step Award,” given exclusively to the most profitable new products.
Post-it Notes were the perfect self-marketing product. Fry once compared them to a virus because, by their nature, the notes are spread out and shared; every use would turn into a demonstration.
The iconic appearance
It isn’t just the Post-it Note’s usefulness that makes it so familiar and immediately recognizable—the original 3×3, the pale-yellow square is a classic. This, too, is the result of a complete coincidence.
According to Geoff Nicholson, former Vice President of Technical Operations at 3M, the lab next door Fry’s had an excess of yellow scrap paper they didn’t mind giving the creative team for their experiments.
Now, Post-it Notes come in a wide variety of shapes and colors; 3M has even released a line with increased cling, called “Super Sticky Notes,” and an even sturdier one called “Extreme Notes.”
The Canary Yellow is still central to the brand. The patent for the product ran out in 1997, allowing competitors to roll out their versions of “sticky notes.” The Post-it name and that shade of yellow remain trademarks of 3M, and the precise recipe for the glue remains a closely guarded secret.
The success of the Post-It Note
One of its most popular products, 3M produces 50 billion Post-it Notes a year. Post-it Notes are sold in more than 100 countries, and according to one study, an office worker in the US will receive an average of 11 messages by Post-it Note a day.
Sticky notes are generally one of the most frequently purchased office products in the US, with Post-it continuing to dominate the market.
The word Post-it has become a genericized trademark. It is used colloquially for all brands of sticky notes. A signal of just how much consumer awareness and memorability the brand possesses.
The legacy and symbol
3M attributes the invention of Post-it Notes to both Silver and Fry. Interviews have made it clear that the two scientists agreeably share the credit. Both have received significant accolades from 3M and the scientific community. Silver received the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention in 1998. Arthur Fry and Spencer Silver were both added as members of the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.
In 1995, President Clinton awarded 3m the National Medal of Technology for the company’s achievements in invention, technology, and innovation. Post-it Notes were cited as one of the products that helped the company earn the prestigious honor.
The Post-it Note was included in a 2004 exhibition called “Humble Masterpieces,” which was displayed at the Museum of Modern Art in New York, besides other omnipresent objects like paperclips, erasers, Band-Aids, and T-shirts. The artist explained that he felt that just because something was designed for everyday use doesn’t mean it shouldn’t be admired as a triumph of design.
In the 1990s, a former 3M employee, Alan Amron, claimed that he proposed the idea for a sticky paper before Fry. Although he may have had the idea, the glue needed had yet to been invented and Amron’s idea had no connection to Silver’s adhesive. Amron settled with 3M in 1997 but went on to repeat his grievance in a 2016 lawsuit.
Beyond its physical function, The Post-it Note has come to be an emblem of the very idea of informal brainstorming. There is an increasing popularity in “digital” sticky notes. Apple and Microsoft both include sticky note options in their own note-taking apps. 3M has also developed its own branded Post-it mobile app.
The symbolism comes full circle—the Post-it Note was the product of creativity and collaboration, and now its image is seen as a shorthand for those qualities.
What we can learn from Spencer Silver and his glue
Numerous things needed to go right for the Post-it Note to become a success, and none of them happened quickly.
Silver’s adhesive was an accident. The glue would never have found its niche without Arthur Fry’s stroke of unlikely inspiration. The perfect Canary Yellow was a matter of complete happenstance. And Post-it Notes came very close to failing after a disappointing performance in 3M’s initial marketing tests under the name “Press n Peel.”
Calling a new invention “a solution in search of a problem” is usually not very complimentary. But Silver’s adhesive turned out to be just that. Sometimes, people don’t know they have a problem until something easier comes along. Completely intuitive and with countless applications, the Post-it Note is nothing if not a convenience.
It took an entire decade and a fresh pair of eyes, but his glue eventually became a massive success.
It reminds us that we should never dismiss an invention’s potential. Just because its potential uses aren’t immediately obvious, we can see from this example of how great things can happen when creative minds meet. It’s possible to turn mistakes into huge successes, and sometimes it takes a lot of patience and persistence to make the right idea stick!