The History of This: Duct tape

by Colleen Harper

It saved the life of three of the astronauts aboard Apollo 13. It’s been the central topic of best-selling books. It’s been used to create high fashion gowns, seaworthy vessels, even shoes. The Red Green show called it “the handyman’s secret weapon” for good reason. With enough duct tape and determination, you can build a functional cannon, construct a bridge, and even suspend a vehicle…for a time at least. So where did this magnificent tool come from?

At the turn of the 20th century, long non-adhesive strips of a particularly sturdy fabric called duck canvas were referred to as “duck tape”. It was used in shoe making, to decorate clothing, and even to protect the steel cables that held up the Brooklyn Bridge in 1902. By the 1910s, adhesive tapes were fairly common, but it wasn’t until World War II that the magic combination of cloth tape, waterproof coating, and adhesive came together in the glorious combination we take for granted today. It was developed for the US military by a division of the Johnson & Johnson company to seal ammunition cases against moisture.
Because it was used in the field, it was essential that this waterproof tape could be ripped with the hands, quickly and cleanly. The woven fabric tape was flexible, waterproof, and required no tools to use effectively. The soldiers called it duck tape, like its earlier non-adhesive relative. The name variation “duct tape” came into use in the 1950s when a similar product, coloured with powdered aluminum, was created to help in the construction and repair of heating ducts. The silvery grey color blended with the tin of the ducting.

Duck, or duct, tape is now available in every color of the rainbow, printed with tiny moustaches or strips of bacon, even with a glow-in-the-dark finish. It has come a long way since its olive drab army days, even enjoying the honour of a feature film entitled “Duct Tape Forever.” The manufacturer of Duck brand duck tape, Henkel, offers a college scholarship each year to the high school student who can make the best duck tape prom dress, so you can add “put a kid through college” to its wide ranging list of applications. Whether you call it duck tape or duct tape, modern society would not be the same without this inimitable adhesive.

By Colleen Harper