Monday, April 25, 2011

Obligatory Duct Tape origins sidebar

I recently posted a blog entry on my negative experiences with duct tape, using it as an analogy for work, where the quick patch seems expeditious but in the long run leads to more rework or lower quality. But from whence doth come this ubiquitous duct tape, and how didst it earn its appellation?

Well, a little research shows that the product we now call duct tape originated during that great mother of invention, World War II. Permacell, a division of Johnson & Johnson, started with a cloth based medical tape, added a new super-sticky rubber based adhesive, and then laminated it with a coating of polyethylene. The result was a strong, flexible, durable, (almost) waterproof tape that could be torn into strips or other convenient sizes. Soldiers used it to seal ammunition boxes and make field repairs to equipment, including guns, jeeps - even aircraft. Returning GI's were enamored with the stuff and bought it from military surplus for civilian uses, including sealing ducts. Manufacturers started making it available commercially in the now familiar metallic color rather than military olive green.

It was not called duct tape during the war, however ... so how did that name enter the common vernacular? There are a couple of possible explanations, and they probably all played a factor. The most obvious derivation would be from popular use of the product to seal metallic ducts. (Standard duct tape is actually no longer acceptable for this purpose according to most state building codes; there is special purpose stuff that holds up better.)

Another common name for the stuff is duck tape. Cotton duck is a type of canvas, and duck tape is an old fashioned name for strips of material. Hence this new fabric backed tape would have fit the generic term. Now combine that with the story that soldiers referred to the stuff as duck tape due to its ability to shed water. One enterprising company (Manco) jumped on that bandwagon by creating Duck Brand Duct Tape, with a duck on the logo. They continue to manufacture a variety of forms of the iconic product today, sponsoring contests and promoting creative uses for it.

So, which came first, duct or duck? Is one name a homophonic bastardization of the other, or did they evolve in parallel? Where's MacGyver when you need him.