Despite creating security headaches for IT departments around the world as the password manager of choice for boomers, the Post-it Note is one of the most clever and ubiquitous office accessories ever created, and this past weekend the world, unfortunately, said goodbye—to their creator, Spencer Silver, who passed away at 80 years old.
Most don’t give a second thought to the tiny sheets of yellow paper as they struggle to squeeze another important thing to remember onto their crowded computer screens, but like many world-changing technologies, the Post-it Note was a product born from failure that went on to become more successful than what its creator was originally trying to perfect.
Born in 1941 in San Antonio, Texas, Spencer Ferguson Silver III first earned a Bachelor of Science in chemistry from Arizona State University in 1962, followed in 1966 by a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder. After graduating he was hired by 3M’s central research laboratory as a senior chemist and started his career working on the development of pressure-sensitive adhesives—the glue that most tapes rely on.
In 1969, Silver began work on developing a strong adhesive that could be used in the aircraft industry for building planes, a breakthrough that could potentially reduce weight, reduce costs, and reduce stress points, making aircraft safer in the process. That never panned out, but in the process of testing various new formulations, Silver discovered that one, in particular, demonstrated low-tack properties and could be easily removed from surfaces it had adhered to, including paper, without any tearing.
On the microscopic level, the adhesive was made of tiny acrylic spheres that would retain their stickiness even after being repeatedly applied to and removed from a surface. Officially called acrylate copolymer microspheres, they were patented by 3M in 1972 but at first, it was a product that solved a problem that no one actually had, so the company didn’t immediately commercialize it. Not even Silver was sure of what the new adhesive could be used for, so he promoted it and its unique properties at internal 3M seminars for years, until one day a fellow engineer named Art Fry sat in on one of Silver’s presentations.
Fry had a problem of his own, but it wasn’t related to work. Every Wednesday night he would attend practices with his church’s choir and despite his best attempts to mark hymn books with paper scrap bookmarks so he knew which songs would be sung during a Sunday service, they would inevitably all fall out.
During Silver’s presentation, Fry had a eureka moment, and together the two created sticky bookmarks that wouldn’t damage the pages of a hymnal when removed. But it was when they started to use the sticky sheets for sharing notes and messages, the pair realized the potential of their creation
Originally sold as a product called Post ‘n Peel when introduced in four US cities in 1977, the nationwide rollout came on April 6, 1980, along with a new name: Post-it Notes. As for the iconic choice of Canary Yellow for the product which makes the notes very visible? It seems like it was the product of feedback from intense focus groups, but in reality, the color was simply chosen because of an excess of scrap yellow paper in another one of 3M’s adhesive labs. In 1993, Fry would eventually officially patent the product as a “repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material” which just doesn’t have the same ring.
Silver went on to work for 3M for 28 years, and when he retired in 1996 his name was on over 22 US patents and he received several awards, including the American Chemical Society Award for Creative Invention in 1998. In 2011, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. On May 8, 2021, Silver died of ventricular tachycardia at his home in St. Paul, Minnesota. The product he helped create may not have directly put rovers on Mars or smartphones in people’s hands, but somewhere in the world, there’s an office or lab with at least a couple of tiny yellow squares holding the secrets to the next big innovation.