In scientific terms, duct tape refers to a “cloth- or scrim-backed pressure sensitive tape often coated with polyethylene.” Practical uses included: shipping, model ships, and even fixing the dreaded iPhone 4 antenna gate issue. Continue reading to see twenty-four impractical uses, along with bonus videos, and more on the history of this material.
The first material called “duck tape” was long strips of plain cotton duck cloth used in making shoes stronger, and for wrapping steel cables or electrical conductors to protect them from corrosion or wear. For instance, in 1902, steel cables supporting the Brooklyn Bridge were first covered in linseed oil then wrapped in duck tape before being laid in place. In the 1910s, certain boots and shoes used canvas duck fabric for the upper or for the insole, and duck tape was sometimes sewn in for reinforcement. In 1936, the US-based Insulated Power Cables Engineers Association specified a wrapping of duck tape as one of many methods used to protect rubber-insulated power cables. In 1942, Gimbel’s department store offered venetian blinds that were held together with vertical strips of duck tape. All of these uses were for plain cotton or linen tape that came without a layer of applied adhesive.
Adhesive tapes of various sorts were in use by the 1910s, including rolls of cloth tape with adhesive coating one side. White adhesive tape made of cloth soaked in rubber and zinc oxide was used in hospitals to bind wounds, but other tapes such as friction tape or electrical tape could be substituted in an emergency. In 1930, the magazine Popular Mechanics described how to make adhesive tape at home using plain cloth tape soaked in a heated liquid mixture of rosin and rubber from inner tubes. In 1923, Richard Gurley Drew working for 3M invented masking tape, a paper-based tape with a mildly sticky adhesive. In 1925 this became the Scotch brand masking tape. In 1930, Drew developed a transparent tape based on cellophane, called Scotch Tape. This tape was widely used beginning in the Great Depression to repair household items. Author Scott Berkun has written that duct tape is “arguably” a modification of this early success by 3M. However, neither of Drew’s inventions were based on cloth tape. The Revolite division of Johnson & Johnson made medical adhesive tapes from duck cloth, beginning in 1927.
In 1942 during World War II, a team headed by Revolite’s Johnny Denoye and Johnson & Johnson’s Bill Gross developed a new adhesive tape for the US military, intended to seal ammunition cases against moisture. The tape was required to be ripped by hand, not cut with scissors. This unnamed product was made of thin cotton tape coated in waterproof polyethylene (plastic) with a layer of rubber-based gray adhesive (“Polycoat”) bonded to one side.
It was easy to apply and remove, and was soon adapted to repair military equipment quickly, including vehicles and weapons. This tape, colored in army-standard matte olive drab, was nicknamed “duck tape” by the soldiers. Various theories have been put forward for the nickname, including the descendant relation to cotton duck fabric, the waterproof characteristics of a duck bird, and even the 1942 amphibious military vehicle DUKW which was pronounced “duck”. After the war, the duck tape product was sold in hardware stores for household repairs. The Melvin A. Anderson Company of Cleveland, Ohio, acquired the rights to the tape in 1950. It was commonly used in construction to wrap air ducts. Following this application, the name “duct tape” came into use in the 1950s, along with tape products that were colored silvery gray like tin ductwork.
Specialized heat- and cold-resistant tapes were developed for heating and air-conditioning ducts. By 1960 a St. Louis, Missouri, HVAC company, Albert Arno, Inc., trademarked the name “Ductape” for their “flame-resistant” duct tape, capable of holding together at 350-400 F (175-200 C). In 1971, Jack Kahl bought the Anderson firm and renamed it Manco. In 1975, Kahl rebranded the duct tape made by his company. Because the previously used generic term “duck tape” had fallen out of use, he was able to trademark the brand “Duck Tape” and market his product complete with a yellow cartoon duck logo. In 1979, the Duck Tape marketing plan involved sending out greeting cards with the duck branding, four times a year, to 32,000 hardware managers.
This mass of communication combined with colorful, convenient packaging helped Duck Tape become popular. From a near-zero customer base Manco eventually controlled 40% of the duct tape market in the US. After profiting from Scotch Tape in the 1930s, 3M produced military materiel during WWII, and by 1946 had developed the first practical vinyl electrical tape. By 1977, the company was selling a heat-resistant duct tape for heating ducts. In the late 1990s, 3M was running a $300 million duct tape division, the US industry leader. In 2004, 3M invented a transparent duct tape.