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Scotch tape (Public Radio Commentary)

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(For radio stations: Bill's public radio work can be licensed via PRX).

Yesterday, I bought the essential tool for getting through the holidays: Scotch tape. As I purchased it I marveled at its plastic, circular dispenser, the one that looks a bit like a sea shell. The design's durability amazes me - it's sixty years old - and it's what made scotch tape really happen.

Richard Drew, a chemist working in the 1920s at 3M, invented Scotch tape when a company planning to insulate railroad cars approached him. They needed to protect their insulation from water because it stunk when wet. A friend suggested Drew try a new material called cellophane.

So he took cellophane, coated it with adhesive and, although, he didn't solve the insulators problem, he invented scotch tape.

The tape's remarkable ability to stick to everything attracted all types of users, but it stuck too well to itself: Users couldn't keep the loose end of the tape from reattaching to the roll, where it became invisible and nearly impossible to get a hold of again. To really take off Scotch tape needed a proper dispenser.

A tape dispenser seems trivial, yet it requires a deep knowledge of psychology and physiology, of science and technology and an understanding of manufacturing. Here enters the least known of all people who effect our material world: The industrial designer.

In 1937 3M hired designer Jean Reinecke to create a new holder. Reinecke spent the next forty years thinking about scotch tape dispensers. He made two designs before hitting in 1939 on the first of his seemingly permanent contributions to our material world.

His 1939 dispenser - the classic I bought recently - is the simplest holder: Two plastic pieces that press together, the roll held in a circular section from which an arm extends to hold a serrated edge to cut the tape. To me the design is so simple it looks fresh even today: sleek and elegant in its geometric precision. It fits perfectly in the palm, keeps the tape at the ready, yet can be easily and cheaply manufactured.

Despite the success of this holder Reinecke kept thinking about tape dispensers: In 1953 he designed the classic cast iron office tape dispenser: An elongated blocky base with circular shrouds, gently sloping sides and a raised blade like a violin bridge. So durable where these that many originals are still in use today.

Like the best designers Reinecke kept up with the times: For the 1960s he designed a highly sculptured, molded plastic form with swooping curves, available in hundreds of day-glow colors. I still have one in my office. His tape dispenser designs are now permanent icons of mid twentieth century design - and are likely to stick with us through the 21st century.

Copyright 2004 William S. Hammack Enterprises