Duct tape or duck tape? The two are more or less interchangeable these days, but the tool kit that comes in a roll started life as duck tape. There are two reasons for this.
One is that it uses a fabric base called cotton duck, a term that comes from the Dutch word “doek” meaning… um… cotton fabric, a kind of lightweight canvas. The other comes from the Second World War, where the tape was used to keep moisture from seeping into ammunition cases (think: water off a duck’s back).
Since necessity is indeed the mother of invention, troops soon found other uses for it, like fixing Jeeps, aircraft and guns. It’s even been pressed into service to act as bandages and tourniquets.
Once the war was over, however, and there was a house-building boom, the tape was used wherever air conditioning and heating ducts needed sealing. This was when the main color went from drab Army olive to the still-popular silvery gray that matched the ductwork.
The irony being that one of the few things duct tape is not good for is sealing up ducts. It can’t take the extremes of temperature. The building codes of California and several other states actually prohibit the use of it in this application.
That hasn’t stopped duct tape from being employed for mundane quick fixes like shoe repair to feats of ingenuity, such as fashioning many rolls of the stuff into prom outfits or forming sculptures out of it. The most famous fix ever, though, must be the Apollo 13 rescue.
Tom Hanks, Kevin Bacon and the other one were on their way to the moon when... sorry, just had a problem. Its crew was, of course, Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert and Fred Haise, and the issue was when one of the oxygen tanks exploded. The biggest issue, though, was what to do with the carbon dioxide exhaled by the astronauts. Trouble was, the command module’s square-shaped filters needed to connect with the separate lunar module’s round ones. Luckily, someone at NASA thought it was a good idea to add a roll of duct tape to what was otherwise rocket science. Engineers on the ground worked out the best way to deploy it, radioed up instructions and the guys got home OK.
The mists of history have obscured the identity of the person who actually put some cotton duck into a sticky strip.
Most of the time, we normally just say the word “tape” whenever we refer to pressure-sensitive adhesive strip. It’s become a verbal shorthand we take for granted. But someone had to invent it and that someone was Richard Drew, who worked for the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company (which subsequently became 3M). He first came up with masking tape in the early ’30s and then transparent cellophane tape. The mists of history have obscured the identity of the person who actually put some cotton duck into a sticky strip, but the first manufacturer (in 1942) was Permacel, then a division of Johnson & Johnson. Several companies make it now, including 3M and Duck.
Duct tape is often confused with gaffer tape. The latter is a specialized version that lifts off without leaving a residue and is used primarily on film sets and music stages to keep cables tidy, often taped to the ground so the talent won’t trip over them. It’s usually black, although duct tape now comes in an array of colors, including camouflage. This confusion might be how the following joke came into being (which Apollo 13 crew members and Star Wars fans in particular will enjoy). Duct tape is like The Force; it has a light side, a dark side and it holds the universe together.
Although duct tape has secured itself an important position in human history, it may soon be succeeded by something called Endumax. It’s made from a special type of polyethylene and claimed to be 11 times stronger than steel. And bulletproof. If the pairing of duct tape and WD40 is known as the redneck’s toolbox, imagine what those Southern boys could get up to with Endumax.