The surprising history of the discovery of Superglue

The invention of Superglue is a classic story of not thinking outside the box. Discovered TWICE by accident by material scientists working for the US military, it was discarded because it was too sticky!

The surprising history of Superglue

The 1940s were a decade of innovation. There was a huge leap forward in human technology in every area from the microwave to the jet engine.

But did you know the humble superglue was also originally discovered way back in the 40s, almost 20 years before it was first brought to market!

This is the surprising story of the discovery of Superglue, and how it was discovered TWICE by accident!

1942: Original discovery

Superglue (cyanoacrylate) was first discovered in 1942 by Dr. Harry Coover.

Coover was a materials scientist working for the US military.

Coover and his team were looking for a strong, clear plastic that could be used to fit the US military’s WW2 weapons with a sight.

Upon discovering the cyanoacrylate solution, the team discarded it because it was so sticky, making it too difficult to work with.

Not realizing the potential commercial value of the solution, the team discarded the solution, and knowledge of it was lost for almost a decade until it was unbelievably accidentally discovered AGAIN by the US military.

1951: Superglue accidentally discovered AGAIN

In 1951, almost a decade after he first discovered Cyanoacrylates, Dr. Harry Coover found himself the project lead working for Eastman Kodak. (Today known simply as ‘Kodak’) Coover and his team were looking for a strong, transparent, and heat-proof material that could be used for the canopy of jet planes.

This time, not Dr. Coover himself, but one of his research students named Fred Joyner. Mr. Joyner discovered the cyanoacrylate formula and decided to try to test the refractive index of the solution.

He tested it by spreading a thin layer between two refractive glass prisms. 

Much to the surprise of everyone involved, the prisms became completely bonded together.

The team was blown away by the strength and speed at which the two prisms were bonded, and this time Dr. Coover quickly understood the possible commercial applications for such a strong adhesive.

Superglue Vietnam War
Superglue was widely used in the Vietnam war.

Investigating the properties of Cyanoacrylate

Coover and his team spent some time researching their new discovery and were blown away by the usefulness of the material.

It was learned that all that was needed to bond two materials was a little moisture. 

Not only does this make the adhesive extremely useful, given that water is cheap and plentiful, but the amount needed was so little that even the moisture in most objects and the moisture in the air was enough to cause it to cure.

This is the reason Superglue we know and love today works perfectly on materials like wood (and skin!) but not on oily plastics which contain no moisture (polyethylene & polypropylene).

This time around, Coover did not ignore these amazing properties and brought them to the attention of the company, which began developing a consumer product.

1958: Finally released as a consumer product

Eastman Kodak finally released this revolutionary product to the public in 1958.

Such an important and novel product needed a catchy and memorable name. This super product needed a super brand name. That’s why Eastman Kodak came up with the name of… “Eastman #910“. Wow.

Yes, that’s right… this fantastic new product was released with possibly the most boring and dull brand name I’ve ever heard in my life.

Thankfully though, Eastman leased the product to Loctite, who released it under their own brand, with their own brand name. Unfortunately, Loctite’s marketing team must have read the same marketing books as Eastman’s, releasing their version under the name “Loctite Quickset 404”.

This is what happens when you let engineers try their hand at marketing!

Eventually, both Eastman and Loctite came to their senses, rebranding their respective products “Super Glue” and “Super Bonder“.

Use in Vietnam War

From 1955 until 1975, the US was involved in the conflict in Vietnam.

After 1958, when Superglue was released commercially – soldiers in Vietnam began to use it to seal wounds of injured soldiers.

In an interview with the Kingsport Times News, Dr. Harry Coover explained:

“If somebody had a chest wound or open wound that was bleeding, the biggest problem they had was stopping the bleeding so they could get the patient back to the hospital.”

“Medics used the spray, stopped the bleeding, and were able to get the wounded back to the base hospital. […] Many lives were saved.”

Dr. Harry Coover: The legacy of “Mr Superglue”

Dr. Coover was one of the great minds of the 20th Century.

In 2010, Dr. Coover was recognized with the national medal of technology and innovation, presented in person by President Obama before Coover’s death.

The incredible benefit to humanity that Coover brought with his invention of Cyanoacrylates can not be overstated. It’s fitting that what was originally designed as a tool of war was eventually used to bring so much good to the world.

Cyanoacrylates are used in medicine, dentistry, construction, veterinary, aerospace, and manufacturing processes in every corner of the world.

Dr Harry Coover - The inventor of Superglue
Dr Harry Coover (1917 – 2011)