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How has he transformed the scene?

The flash of an idea occurred in an unlikely place. As the scrap of paper he was using for a bookmark fluttered out of his choir hymnal in church, Art Fry recalled the adhesive he'd learned about years earlier at a seminar led by 3M colleague Spencer Silver. An organic chemist, Silver had been experimenting with polymers, and had produced an unusual adhesive characterized by widely spaced "microspheres" that provided a temporary bond between surfaces. Silver's intriguing discovery had not yet found a home in a widely marketable product. Fry wondered: what if the gentle "low tack" adhesive were applied to a bookmark? Did the world, as did he, need a bookmark that stayed put, yet could be repositioned as desired, without damaging the underlying pages?

A sticky business

Art Fry was the ideal person to be struck by such an idea. First, he was a chemical engineer by formal education and training. Second, he had twenty years of experience in new product development at 3M; years in which he had refined his own professional skill-set within the context of the corporation's larger collaborative team. Third, and perhaps most important, Fry was a person who understood that ideas are a dime a dozen. Making an idea fly—from materials to production methods to marketing—that was where the real work came in. He did not expect things to be easy.

He was right

Back in his lab at 3M, Fry made prototypes to share with supervisors and colleagues. He applied Silver's adhesive in a narrow band along the lower edge of one side of a strip of paper. There were technical obstacles to overcome, not the least of which was how to make the adhesive stay on the bookmark rather than migrate onto other surfaces. Still, the basic idea of a "sticky but repositionable" bookmark was looking plausible. But the real breakthrough in the concept came when he jotted a brief message to a supervisor on one of his prototypes. A "sticky note," he realized, could have far greater potential, serving many purposes in an office setting. How would the product be packaged and dispensed by the user? Fry wanted to make pads of the small sticky notes. But rolls were the current standard for other adhesive products made by 3M (think Scotch tape), and the idea not readily embraced by the corporation's engineers and designers. Undeterred, Fry set up shop in his home basement, and in a few months' time he had built a machine that could accomplish the task. Unfortunately, when he attempted to move the machine to the 3M plant, it was like a ship in a bottle, too big to fit out the door. There was no solution but to knock out the basement wall. Fry's choirbook-inspired invention was getting expensive.

At last, the sticky note pads could now be made on a small scale at the 3M plant, and the product was tested in selected markets around the country, including Denver, Tulsa, Tampa, and Richmond. Results were far from encouraging. Again, Fry was not unduly discouraged, because he and his supervisors were tracking a more promising scenario emerging in an unofficial test market. In the daily course of business within the offices of 3M's headquarters—a small city in its own right—staff who had tried what was now called "Press'n'Peel" kept coming back for more, using as many as 20 of the notepads per year for office communication and organization. Given the right introduction, Fry's product was habit-forming. The writing, as they say, was on the wall. After an intensive marketing campaign in the Boise market (the "Boise Blitz), the product was on its way, destined to enjoy a more cosmopolitan distribution that nearly any office product worldwide.

It was 6 years between Spencer Silver's 1968 discovery of the "low-tack" adhesive and Fry's 1974 "flash" of an idea, and another 6 years before the 1980 United States release of what is now known as Post-it Notes (although Fry himself favored the name 'papillion,' French for butterfly, for its "butter and fly" connotation). By 1995, the product had generated estimated sales of $500 million and in 2006 was being distributed in over 100 countries: first the familiar yellow square, then a host of colors, one more vivid than the next. Even pop culture has taken note, so to speak, featuring the product in everything from murals to evening wear, including a surprisingly lovely "Post-it" wedding gown by Latvian designer Ilze Vitolina.

For the phenomenal success of Post-it Notes, Fry credits the philosophy of 3M, and its encouragement of creativity through a corporate policy that allows employees to pursue their own projects for 15% of their paid time. He is also quick to acknowledge the investment and acceptance of risk that is required for a corporation to pursue such ideas; not all of which pan out in the marketplace or have a good influence on the bottom line. He's happy with the broad and continuing popularity of the product, and quick to acknowledge his collaborators—foremost among them, Spencer Silver.

Now semi-retired, Fry devoted nearly 40 years to new product research at 3M, rising to the corporation's top technical title of corporate scientist. Although his name is synonymous with Post-it Notes, his inventive contributions are many and varied. Among the projects Fry had a hand in developing are: tape with a shingled surface to stabilize books on library shelves, safer and easy to use materials for school art classes, decorative laminates for sheet metal (the basis for the iconic woody station wagon), labeling devices, a highly flexible and long-lived Spine Repair Tape for books, and cold-weather masks for people with emphysema that prevent wheezing by warming air to 60-70º.

As a life-long inventor by trade and by spirit, Fry has enjoyed his role in this multitude of projects. Commenting in an interview for the Smithsonian's Lemelson Center for the Study of Invention and Innovation, Fry notes, "My satisfaction has always been in making things that people really need, but cannot make for themselves."

From boyhood on, he has maintained a keen interest in how the world is put together: the materials, the parts, the processes that make things work. One might say he comes by it naturally. His father was an electrical engineer, and his uncles were structural and mechanical engineers. But at least part of his sensibility, says Fry, is grounded in his rural youth. If something broke, you figured out how to fix it, often fashioning a part from something you had close at hand. Inventiveness wasn't an unusual virtue, just how a person got along in the world. It's not surprising, he notes, that some of the best corporate engineers grew up on farms.

In developing new products, Fry has been grateful for the perspectives he's gained from having lived in both urban and rural settings, learning to appreciate the different ways that people view and do things. When you manage to get it right—your product works, it finds its market, you've met a need—it's highly rewarding.

But there is something more here, in the life of Art Fry, an accomplishment more rare and remarkable. Somehow, Art Fry has held onto a certain lightness, a playfulness. With eight decades in tow, the best of the boy is still present in the man. You can hear it in the enthusiasm with which he speaks, and in the advice he offers for would-be scientists: "Be interested in everything; look at all aspects of what you're working with. Everything turns out to be so much more interesting when you get into it than what it looks like on the outside."

Be interested in everything. Now there's something to write on a Post-it Note.