In the world of inventions there are some that simply don’t stand out as well as others.
There are those, such as the airplane, that changed the world, and brought untold wealth and fame to its inventors, Wilbur and Orville Wright.
On the other hand, there are inventions that although they have had a considerable impact on the world, left their creators in relative obscurity.
Such is the case with masking tape, which in the years since it was invented, its inventor has languished in anonymity.
This is strange since it is estimated that more than 90 percent of American homes and businesses employ masking tape for a variety of uses.
The Banjo-Playing Inventor Who Would Not Quit
In 1921, the 3M company hired three men to oversee the company’s product innovation.
One of these was a scrappy Richard Drew, who from a young age shunned the traditionally structured work environment.
As a result, Drew worked from his youth to his early 20s, as a banjo player, touring with local bands until he had scraped together enough money to pay for a degree in mechanical engineering from the University of Minnesota.
Unfortunately, after only 18 months, Drew became dissatisfied with the program and dropped out.
Instead, his interest was drawn to an advertisement for jobs at 3M. Soon, the 22-year-old Drew was hired by the company and was immediately thrown into the dregs of the business to test various types of sandpaper.
Into the Auto Shops
In their effort to promote their sandpaper products as well as encourage its use, 3M sent Drew to auto shops across the country, their primary customers at the time.
It was at this time that Drew noticed an unusual problem: auto workers were having difficulty painting the two-tone finishes of the cars.
To create the two-tone effect that was so popular at the time, workers had to mask parts of each car with butcher paper and newspapers, and secure them with homemade glues and surgical tape.
Unfortunately, when the tape was removed, chips of the paint would come off on the tape, resulting in a vicious cycle of taping and repainting.
One day, when Drew entered one particular auto shop, he heard what he later described as the “choicest profanity” he had ever heard, as adhesive tape had once again spoiled a worker’s paint job.
Instead of taking the opportunity to sell the workers his sandpaper, a revelation occurred to him that he might be able to create a less aggressive type of adhesive that would not remove paint from the surface of cars.
Drew quickly left the shop, vowing that he would return with a solution to the painting dilemma.
Back the Drawing Board
After Drew returned to his offices, he set about solving the adhesive problem.
Although Drew had no idea how to make tape, he had developed an adhesive that would stick the sand crystals to paper in his sandpaper work.
He conducted a number of experiments to develop a solution, but nothing worked.
Making matters worse, he was falling behind in his normal duties.
Undeterred, Drew started working on a solution to the problem on his own time.
After two years of work, Drew finally discovered a formula that achieved the results he wanted: a mixture of glue used by cabinet makers combined with glycerin, then applied in a thin strip to crepe paper.
This created a tape that could be stuck convincingly to surfaces, but would not cause paint to peel when it was removed.
The 3M Mandate
Although Drew’s supervisor at the time, William McKnight, had ordered him to cease his efforts to create tape, even when facing his successful invention, refused to recognize the potential of the product.
As a result, he would not allow Drew to purchase the equipment necessary for mass production. Still undeterred, Drew started making purchases of the needed equipment in increments of $99, since this was the limit of his purchasing power.
Once he had purchased all of the needed parts, Drew constructed the machine himself.
Once Drew was finished with the construction of the machine, production of Scotch Masking Tape went into full production and was an immediate success.
Not only did it change the way cars have been painted since that time, but the product also spawned a whole new industry.
Perhaps most important of all, however, is the 3M philosophy that Drew’s persistence created: that when an employee is the right person for a project, and they show absolute dedication to solving a problem, leave them alone.