Spencer Silver

Born: February 6, 1941;

Died: May 8, 2021.

YOU may have stuck his invention to your head at some point during a party game. You may use it to remind your partner that the milk has run out. Or that they are dumped, as was the experience of Sex And The City’s Carrie Bradshaw. “I’m sorry. I can’t. Don’t hate me,” read the message from her departing lover.

Mostly, however, you will have used the product co-created by Dr Spencer Silver – the guardian angel of the disorganised – as a bookmark, or a gentle yellow warning to remind yourself to make a phone call, buy a birthday present, or collect the children’s nit treatment from the chemist.

The Post-it Note, the ubiquitous office and domestic product – some 50 billion notes are produced every year – has made an immeasurable contribution to the world and, in the process, hundreds of millions of dollars for its US manufacturer, 3M.

But, like many great inventions, this “repositionable pressure-sensitive adhesive sheet material” was a fluke. Back in 1968, when Dr Silver worked in 3M’s central research laboratory, he was trying to create a glue so strong that it could be used in aircraft construction.

In the event, he came up with something entirely different: an adhesive that stuck to surfaces but could be easily peeled off and was reusable. The New York Times said: “It was a solution to a problem that did not appear to exist, but Silver was certain it was a breakthrough.”

Dr Silver himself said: “I felt my adhesive was so obviously unique that I began to give seminars throughout 3M in the hope I would spark an idea among its product developers.”

Struggling to find a use for his invention, he continued to advertise its merits to colleagues. “I came to be known as Mr Persistent,”,he recalled, “because I wouldn’t give up.”

Dr Silver had the glue – acrylate copolymer microspheres, to be technically precise – but what to attach it to? Two years later, Art Fry, a chemical engineer in 3M’s tape division lab, was on the golf course when he heard a colleague talk about Dr Silver’s sticky solution, and resolved to attend one his seminars.

Fry was looking to develop new products, yet he couldn’t think of a way to utilise Dr Silver’s new on-off bonding agent. Later, during choir practice in church, Fry was hit by a blinding light: he realised the slips of paper he had been using to bookmark songs in his hymnal kept falling out.

And so he used some of Dr Silver’s adhesive to create a bookmark that stayed put but did not tear the pages when removed. Fry reckoned he was on to a winner. But he still had to convince 3M the stickies should be developed.

Fry sent a report to his supervisor with a note on the front written on a piece of the sticky bookmark; the supervisor responded on the same piece of paper. So far, so fantastic. But when, in 1977, the company launched initial marketing tests of its new “Press ’n’ Peel” product in offices in four cities, it flopped with consumers.

Thankfully, one marketing executive came up with the idea of flooding offices in Boise, Idaho, with freebies and 90 per cent of those who had used them said they would buy them. And they did.

Dr Silver was stunned by the sales of his stickies. “The Post-it Notes took off so rapidly,” he said, “that I think it left a lot of people in marketing and sales gasping a little bit.”

Not just a little bit: sales went through the roof. “It was always a self-advertising product,” he said, “because customers would put the notes on documents they sent to others, arousing the recipient’s curiosity. They would look at it, peel it off and play with it, and then go out and buy a pad for themselves.”

Spencer Ferguson Silver III was now a major success story, though his life could have taken a different turn had the teenage Spencer listened to the proclamation of his science teacher. “All you guys are going to be engineers,” he told the class.

Dr Silver didn’t listen. The young man from San Antonio, Texas (his father, Spencer Jnr, was an accountant and his mother, Bernice, a secretary) graduated from Arizona State University with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry in 1962. He gained a PhD in organic chemistry four years later.

During his post-graduate studies, he met Linda Martin, an undergraduate computer programmer who was working part-time in the chemistry department. They married in 1965.

Dr Silver, who loved to paint in his spare time, joined 3M on graduation as a senior chemist working on pressure-sensitive adhesives and went on to become a successful corporate scientist. “He achieved considerable success in the field of branch block copolymers and immuno-diagnostics,” said the New York Times, “but none were part of popular successes like Post-it Notes.”

Indeed. The little yellow stickies became part of popular culture seen, for example, in a plethora of film and television scenes such as the 1997 film Romy And Michele’s High School Reunion. When asked by her former classmates what she had been doing with her life, Michele (Lisa Kudrow) pretends to be a success. “Okay, um, I invented Post-its”, she lies.

Dr Silver smiled when he heard that line. He knew the Post-it was his and Fry’s. Today the notes are available in more than 150 countries and there are more than 4,000 Post-it products. “The fact that they’ve just exploded as a product is more than I could ever hope for,” he once said.

In 2010, he was delighted to be inducted, along with Fry, into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Although he didn’t own the copyright for Post-it Notes (given that they were invented during work time) he had the comfort of attaining a personal fortune estimated in some quarters to be between $1 million and $5m.

He is survived by his wife and daughter, Jennifer, and two grandchildren, but another daughter, Allison Anderson, died in 2017. In later years, his health was poor. Silver, who had a heart transplant 27 years ago, died at home in St Paul, Minnesota aged 80, after suffering heart complications.

The relatively unknown but dogged inventor will remain a saviour to billions who need gentle reminders stuck on the fridge, or the inside pages of their book.