Created | Updated Oct 27, 2008
It seems that everybody uses them. Thinkers and shoppers alike have relied on them, offices would not look the same without them and most people use them at least once a day. It seems almost impossible to think of a time when they were not ubiquitous. We speak, of course, of the Post-it Note. But, as with many marvelously simple inventions most people rarely stop to wonder how they came to be. This entry plans to correct that gap in our collective knowledge.
In the Beginning
A great idea is sometimes defined as something you can write on a Post-it note - but what if the idea is the Post-it Note itself?
In the late 1960s Dr Spence Silver was a research scientist who worked for a glue company - 3M. In 1968 he was looking for ways to improve acrylate adhesives which are used in many of 3M's sticky tapes. The new adhesive which he developed was no good for this. Unlike other glues it formed into spheres no bigger than the diameter of a paper fibre, it was insoluble and could not be melted. The individual spheres were very sticky but because of their shape the glue molecules actually had a very small sticking surface. They were, therefore, of no use for sticky tape.
Realising that this glue was something remarkable, Dr Silver spent the next five years trying to find an application for it. He originally showed samples on bulletin boards1 with the adhesive in a spray can.
Enter Arthur (Art) Fry, a new product-researcher with a knack for inventing things. He sang in a church choir and was in the habit of using small strips of paper to mark his place in his hymn book - although he was frustrated that they kept falling out. He knew that Silver's adhesive did not bond permanently or leave a sticky mess and he soon realised that if he applied a thin coating of the glue on a strip of paper it would also be re-useable. He need not lose his place in his hymn book again.
It still took a long time and a lot of effort on the part of Art Fry and his accomplices to persuade 3M that their product would work. There were many difficulties to overcome, and at each stage of the way Fry would have to convince the engineers and product developers to press on and find a way to produce the blocks of notes.
Even after the production problems had been solved the project was still very nearly cancelled. How, 3M argued, could they persuade people to pay money for something that did the job of a piece of free scrap paper? The product development manager somehow persuaded the division vice-president to accompany him on a market research campaign. In Richmond, Virginia, they made cold calls2 to sell the idea of the product.
The Rest is History
Introduced onto an unsuspecting market in 1980, one year later Post-it Notes were named 3M's Outstanding New Product, despite the fact that at first they had to be given away free, to demonstrate their usefulness.
And they were all yellow...
But What are They For?
Post-it Notes became available to a public who had not realised they needed them but soon they were being used for anything and everything3: bookmarks, of course; notepads; labels; doodlings.
Arguably, Post-it Notes are most visibile in an office environment. In fact, it is highly possible that this article is surrounded by small, sticky scraps of paper bearing esoteric legends such as DEL *.* – with no explanation as to what will happen if that combination of keys is pressed4.
Is that All?
A UK director of a large US software company claimed in 1986 that he was one of the first to bring 'yellow stickies' to the UK. He instructed his company's consultants in relational database design using this innovation. The method was to write the name of each logical database entity (equivalent to a physical table) on a Post-it Note, and then stick them to a wall or whiteboard. For larger systems, whole walls would be covered with hundreds of stickies. The database designers then began to resolve the logical design by arranging the Post-it Notes into logically-related groups, and identifying and drawing the relationships between them.
Eventually this manual method was itself designed into a database, and became the company's CASE (Computer Aided Software Engineering) tool.
There remains a brief period of time in the 1980s when the database consultants from this company could be identified sitting in queues on the M4, while they moved little yellow sticky notes around on their car windscreen.
Post-it Notes have also been used successfully as a learning aid. They are particularly good for learning foreign vocabulary. Some teachers recommend that five words are selected and written on five Post-it Notes which are then affixed to the bathroom mirror, with the translations stuck next to them.
While the student cleans their teeth, they learn the vocabulary. After brushing, the vocabulary stickers are removed and stored in a file or book. During the morning ablutions the student recaps what s/he learned the night before. This system probably has merit since a similar system is now available commercially, with pre-printed blocks of stickers.
Although they are still more common as rectangular, yellow blocks, Post-it Notes are available in a variety of shapes, colours and sizes, from very tiny slivers of paper to mark texts to flip-chart sized. You can keep up to date with the Post-it Note product palette at the 3M Post-it website.
Instructions for Use
- Write, doodle, or don't do anything on the non-sticky side of the pad5.
- Detatch the sheet.
- Apply the sticky side of note to desired surface. Note: Post-it Notes work best when stuck to a solid, smooth surface, rather than an uneven, lumpy or dusty area.
- Post-it Notes can be removed from one surface and re-applied to another many times. However they ofte become clogged up with dust, or the glue reacts with whatever it has been stuck to and it is rendered unusable as a sticky note.
Post-it Notes: The Next Generation
Mac users can smugly point out that there has been a Mac equivalent of electronic Post-it Notes - Stickies - for some time. 3M has now launched its own digital organiser based on the Post-it idea: Post-it Digital: Digital Notes. It functions as a customisable electronic organiser - think of a Filofax with lots of sticky yellow notes poking out of it, but on your monitor.
Who knows where (possibly) the greatest invention since sliced bread will go in the next century? We can only guess.