The year was 1940, and Germany had plunged the world into war (WWII). Back in the US, people were requested to help wherever and however they could. So did Vesta Stoudt, a mother with two sons serving in the Navy, who went to work in the Green River Ordnance Plant, a large munitions factory complex, to do her part to help her sons and their fellow military troops.
Her job at the factory was to inspect and pack cartridges used to launch rifle grenades that soldiers used in the Army and Navy. 11 cartridges were packed in a box, and the boxes were taped and waxed to make them waterproof and damp-proof. A tab of tape was left loose so that it could be pulled to release the waterproof wax coating and open the box. The problem was that the thin paper tape was not strong enough, and the tabs frequently tore off when soldiers pulled on them to open the ammo boxes, leaving them frantically scrambling to break the boxes while in the middle of battle. Lives were at risk –including the lives of her sons.
The tab was made of paper. Hence, in the middle of battle, when the soldiers tried to pull it to open a box, it tore, making it harder to open the box under the stress of being shot and killed.
If you cannot understand the situation, imagine an Amul Butter packet (refer to Amul Butter image below) and imagine the tab (marked with an arrow) made of paper. Imagine that you are required to open that packet to take out the butter while someone tries to shoot at you. Pulling the paper tab too fast will tear it and make it extremely difficult to open the packet.
Stoudt had an “aha” moment: seal the boxes with a strong, cloth-based waterproof tape instead of the thin paper tape. Vesta raised the issue with her supervisors, but although they thought it was a good idea, they did not implement it into practice. She wrote a letter to President Franklin D Roosevelt outlining the issue and telling him her idea about how to fix it. Roosevelt sent Vesta’s letter to the War Production Board in Washington, DC. The board then asked the Industrial Tape Corporation (it later became Permacel)—then a Johnson & Johnson operating company—to make the product because of its demonstrated expertise in producing adhesive tapes. A few weeks later, in March, she received a series of replies from higher-ups that her recommendation for the new tape had been approved and was “of exceptional merit.”
“The military called the waterproof, cloth-backed, green tape 100-mile-per-hour tape because they could use it to fix anything, from fenders on jeeps to boots.”
— Margaret Gurowitz, Chief Historian, Johnson & Johnson
Johnson and Johnson called the product “Duck Tape” because, as the story goes, it was 1) waterproof, like a duck, and 2) it was made with cotton duck fabric.
After the soldiers came home, many of them got jobs in construction, and they recommended some rolls of their hard-working tape to contractors to hold ventilation ducts together (Hence, people changed the name from “Duck” to “Duct” tape. And thus, because of its practicality, it was introduced into every household in the United States and, soon, across every country in the world!