Post-It Notes, The Invention and The Brand

By Jeffrey M. Kaden

I was reading the newspaper the other day and it was reported that Spencer Silver, a chemist who quite accidentally invented the adhesive that is now used for POST-IT notes, passed away earlier in the month. POST-IT notes, what a great invention. Everyone uses them all the time.

By way of background, Silver worked as a scientist for 3M for nearly 30 years. Silver was asked to create an adhesive that was better and stronger than what already existed. Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending upon how you look at it, Silver had a lot of difficulties developing such an adhesive.

However, Silver did accidentally create a new adhesive. While it was not a strong adhesive and was actually not even as strong as the glue used by school children, it was quite unusual in its characteristics. This new adhesive used crystalline microspheres, sort of glass balls, which were sticky enough to stick to an object, yet could be peeled off, over and over; it was also not sticky enough to damage the surface of the object.

Meanwhile, Arthur Fry, who also worked at 3M as a chemical engineer, was having his own problems. As a part-time singer in his church’s choir, he repeatedly, and often unsuccessfully, tried to mark the pages of the week’s musical selection with scraps of paper; he almost always found doing so both frustrating and dissatisfying. He thought of the idea of some type of bookmark that could adhere to paper without damaging the pages but had no idea what could actually work.

By chance, Fry attended a seminar that Spencer Silver was running and learned about Silver’s new adhesive. Fry went to Silver with his idea and together they created a prototype of the product that eventually became the POST-IT note, first trying it out at 3M’s facilities and thereafter in several test markets.

Eventually, the POST-IT note product was produced by the 3M company. 3M also made sure that patent protection was secured. On March 16, 1993, a U.S. patent was granted for REPOSITIONAL PRESSURE-SENSITIVE ADHESIVE SHEET MATERIAL, U.S. Patent No. 5,194,299.

I the beginning, there were a few hiccups, but the POST-IT note product quickly became a success. 3M initially launched the product in a few select cities using the name Press ‘n Peel. After a rebranding, the name POST-IT note was selected. In a short time, the POST-IT note product became a staple at both the office and at home. And the term POST-IT itself has become famous, with 3M applying for and receiving several federal trademark registrations.

Interestingly, the iconic canary yellow color of the POST-IT note product also came about fortuitously. It was apparently selected because at that time it was the only color of scrap paper that the 3M lab facilities had available when they first commenced production. There is now even a registered trademark directed to the canary yellow color.

Even today, 3M produces billions of POST-IT note products each year.

Just goes to show you that the simplest of ideas are sometimes the most successful.