Need a Post-it? You have these 2 guys to thank

Monica Hesse / The Washington Post /

WASHINGTON — The thing that is obvious if your profession is, say, NBA basketball, but less obvious if your profession is, say, adhesives and laminates, is that every field has its own hotshot studs.

“Oh, I get maybe six or seven autograph requests” a week, Arthur Fry is saying modestly.

“Now, do you respond to those?” his collaborator Spencer Silver asks. He’s always afraid that if he gives out autographs, someone could use his signature for identity theft.

“Oh, yes.”

Fry and Silver invented Post-its.

They are the studs.

Fry and Silver were surrounded by a small cluster of people in the National Press Building; they were there to be announced as two of 2010’s 16 inductees to the National Inventors Hall of Fame, a tradition that began in 1973 with the posthumous inaugural induction of Thomas Edison, who invented both the light bulb and the motion picture camera.

On Wednesday, the group participated in an official induction ceremony to the Hall of Fame, which was founded in 1973 by the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office and the National Council of Intellectual Property Law. There is a corresponding museum in Alexandria, Va., featuring the 421 inventors — including this year’s class — who have been honored in 38 years.

Fry is briefly excited when he notices a reporter taking notes on a pad of Post-its, then shakes his head sadly when he begins to suspect that the sticky paper contains not the 3M adhesive — discovered by Silver and made ubiquitous by Fry — but a knockoff.

He reaches over and peels off a pale yellow sheet, holding it aloft for inspection.

“Our paper doesn’t curl like that.”

Post-it culture

Somewhere in its 30-year history, the Post-it has become the quintessential archetype of American ingenuity, a divinely inspired creation story (Fry first thought of attaching the adhesive to paper when he needed bookmarks for a church hymnal) meets a society obsessed with organization and to-do lists. Post-its have become the subjects of visual art, theater and Taiwanese soap operas. In the film “Romy and Michelle’s High School Reunion,” when two flunkies want to impress their old classmates they decide to claim that they invented Post-its.

“It’s sort of like having your kids come up and be successful,” says Fry, who also worked on book-spine repair tape and shelf arranger tape.

Normal glue spreads out flat over any surface it is applied to. Post-it adhesive, however, congeals into small spheres, meaning that it peels easily without leaving residue. After Fry’s church hymnal experiment, he sensed that there were commercial applications to a temporary adhesive, but no machine existed for him to produce prototypes. He constructed his own in his basement, knocking out a wall to import equipment. Fry and Silver refer to themselves as “IN-trepreneurs” rather than entrepreneurs, because despite the millions (Billions? Katrillions?) of Post-its sold, the profits mainly stayed in house with 3M, their employer.

Giants of innovation

At Tuesday’s announcement ceremony, there were other very big giants of very obscure industries. You had S. Donald Stookey, the father of the glass ceramic known better as Corning Ware (Patent No. 2,920,971). You had Yvonne Brill, the only woman to be inducted, creator of the electrothermal hydrazine thruster (No. 3,807,657) used to keep satellites in place in space (Note: It took one woman to invent a rocket thruster, and two men to invent Post-its). You had Jacques Cousteau’s grandson, there to be recognized on behalf of his granddad’s Aqua Lung (No. 2,485,039), later known as “Scuba.”

“We look for people who have done work that’s impacted society,” says Rini Paiva of the Hall of Fame. With more than 7 million patented inventions and only a handful of yearly inductees, some people’s stellar contributions take years to be recognized. They are the Susan Luccis of the inventing world.

“I always seem to be 10 to 15 years ahead of the curve,” says Ralph Baer, an engineer being inducted for inventing the video game console Magnavox Odyssey. Like this 3-D business nowadays, Baer says. He’s been beating that drum for decades. The Odyssey predated Atari by three years, which means Baer is indirectly responsible for every saved princess or Grand Thefted Auto in video game history.

And now? “I like to play the Wii games,” Baer says.

Back over by Silver and Fry, someone wants to know if there are secret uses for Post-its that the public has not yet tapped.

“Fingerprint tape,” Silver suggests.

“Pulling off cat hair,” says Fry.

He adds, “I keep a dispenser by every phone in the house,” for jotting down numbers or notes, or doodling, or whatever.

But everyone already does that. Otherwise, Fry and Silver wouldn’t be here.