|by Dr. Jeffrey Lant
Ever hear of Dr. Harry Coover? Probably not.
Know what cyanoacrylates are? Probably not.
Yet both of them have a place in your life -- under the commercial name Super Glue. You've surely heard of -- and used -- that!
And now you're about to learn the story about a smart man, his accidental invention, and how it holds the world together.
Picture the scene...
It's war time in America - World War II war time that is -- and Dr. Coover is doing his bit. He was working on a project; experimenting with acrylates for use in clear plastic gun sights. Problem was, he had to call it quits because those darned sticky acrylates just kept sticking to everything. Dr. Coover was in sight of his most well known invention... but he missed the forest for the trees. That time.
Fast forward to 1951.
Fred Joyner, who was working with Dr. Coover at Eastman Kodak's laboratory in Tennessee, was testing compounds looking for a heat- resistant coating for jet cockpits. When Joyner spread the 910th compound on the list between two lenses on a refractometer to take a reading on the velocity of light through it, he discovered he could not separate the lenses.
His initial reaction was panic at the loss of expensive lab equipment. No wonder. He had just ruined a machine worth $3000, which in 1951 was a fortune.
But Dr. Coover, remembering his 1942 problem with sticky cyanoacrylates had an "aha" moment. The forest was beginning to emerge... a moment of insight and perception that happens to every inventor -- especially if they're as smart as Harry Coover.
Yup, Harry Coover was about to break through, with the discovery that we all know and use all the time.
Coover in time-honored inventor fashion looked at cyanoacrylates in a new way. Not as things that ruin things like valuable lab equipment... but rather as adhesives with unique properties. They required no heat or pressure to bond.
Eureka! This was new, different, important.
The team started testing Coover's hypothesis. It must have been fun in the lab as they tried this new substance on various items. Each time the items became permanently bonded... just like Harry Coover and cyanoacrylates.
Kodak knew Harry and his team were on to Something Big. After all everybody and his brother were always attempting to bond things... but they usually didn't stick for very long which was a source of unending annoyance to all sorts of people.
In due course, Coover received patent number 2,768,109 for his "Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Composition/Superglue" and began refining the product for commercialization. His company packaged the adhesive as "Eastman 910" and began marketing it in 1958.
Marketing types quickly realized (faster than the inventive guys) that "Eastman 910" was most assuredly NOT a name to conjure with. What did it mean anyway? Flagging sales for one thing... A hot new name, a spokesman, and a break were required.
And, hey presto, there was Garry Moore, host of "I've Got A Secret" and Dr. Harry Coover, his guest. Dr. Coover's secret, of course, was that he had invented Super Glue. And then... he was asked to demonstrate. Coover was a natural showman and was eager to show what his baby could do.
A metal bar was lowered onto the stage, and Dr. Coover used a dab of the glue to connect two metal parts. Then he grabbed one and was raised in the air on the strength of his invention.
America took note. But Kodak couldn't make it profitable enough. It sold the business to National Starch in 1980, and things took off. The 1942 accident that started it all had turned into one of America's best-known products... it was the glue that kept the nation together!
But the best use for Super Glue was one you could hardly imagine. During the Vietnam War, it became apparent that cyanoacrylates could be used to treat war wounds. Field surgeons began using the substance by spraying it over open wounds. This stopped bleeding instantly and allowed hurt soldiers to be transported to medical facilities for conventional treatment. This saved lives.
Moreover, in due course, additional medical uses developed: rejoining veins and arteries during surgery, sealing bleeding ulcers, punctures or legions, stopping uncontrollable bleeding of some soft ulcers, and use during dental surgery. Super Glue was a medical marvel, saving lives one dab at a time.
Super Glue wasn't all, however.
Dr Coover was an invention dynamo his entire career. He held over 460 patents by the end of his life. But he had always been an achiever. He studied chemistry at Hobart College in New York and then received a master's degree and doctorate from Cornell University. He took a job with Eastman Kodak Co. and stayed with them his entire professional life; after retirement he stayed on as a consultant.
Dr. Coover understood the business of inventing. He spent his life pushing the envelope, dreaming dreams... and changing the world, one discovery after another. He understood, too, that inventors need optimism. They needed good work habits... persistence... the ability to see things in a different perspective to get results. They needed good team members.... and always, always good humor. When you're going to places no one has ever been before there will be lots of errors... and therefore lots of humor required.
Dr. Harry Coover excelled in them all.
Along the way, his achievements garnered many awards and a lifetime of recognition. He deserved them all... Industrial Research Institute Medal Achievement Award, the Maurice Holland Award, the ACS Earl B. Barnes Award, and the AIC Chemical Pioneers Award. In 2004, he was inducted into the National Inventor's Hall of Fame. And then in 2010, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Dr. Harry Coover, dead at 94, March 26, 2011.
Dr. Coover is now gone. But his most famous invention -- Super Glue -- remains. It is a legacy that will stick... a useful legacy beloved of fixer-uppers everywhere. Coover always said he had a special place in his heart for his sticky invention, the invention that gave him the nickname "Mr. Super Glue." And why shouldn't he?
Inventors are special people. They see the world as it can be... not just as it is. Of these inventors, Dr. Coover was one of the best. He will be missed, of course; such people always are. But he gave us his best... and that was ample.