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Duct tape (Public Radio Commentary)

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

Duct tape is a pop icon of the technological world - but only in America. It's sold in other countries, but no where else does it have this reputation as a universal cure-all. The reason duct tape resonates so strongly in the America psyche is due to duct tape's origins: It long been part of America's battle for freedom and liberty - and perhaps the ultimate representative of yankee ingenuity. Recently, of course, we've heard America's Homeland Security secretary earnestly advise stock piling duct tape to defend against a biochemical attack. This use echoes the origins of duct tape: It was made to combat the menace of Adolf Hitler. During World War II, the military had great trouble with water seeping into ammunication boxes - wet bullets don't work very well. In response two inventors at Johnson and Johnson set to work on a special tape to solve this problem.

They took a surgical tape made by their company and added a water-proof layer of polyurethane sealant. Because the cloth layer was cotton and because the sealant made water bead up on the tape, soldiers dubed it duck tape - that's right "d-u-c-k" - duck tape. It reminded them of ducks because water rolled off it like a duck. The tape became standard military issue in olive green, and it instantly became a military staple. As intended soldiers used it to seal their ammunication boxes, but they also used it to mend boots, patch holes in tents, and strap equipment to jeeps. When the GI's returned home they brought duck tape with them.

In the booming suburbs of the 1950s it filled a million household needs, including, of course, sealing duct work. Hence the new name, and also the color changed from green to silver.

It has now, of course, reached pop icon status. It's been used to make prom dresses - as part of the yearly duct tape fashion show. The Apollo 13 astronauts used it to improvise a life saving carbon dioxide filter. And sadly, it is favored by the criminal classes: It's been used to hold open doors, and to bind bodies. And it is the focus of many jokes. Alaskans claim that a cardboard box sealed with duct tape is an "Alaskan samsonite."

Today duct tape comes in seventeen colors, including hot pink. Some 600,000 miles of tape are sold every year - enough to go around the world seventy-five times. Yet there is one thing you should not do with it: Use it on heating ducts.

Researchers at the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that duct tape lets more energy seep out from ducts than just about any other type of tape. In fact, it releases so much energy, that California denies a tax-credit to any ducts covered with duct tape.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises