The Rad Scientist – Duct Tape

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What’s my favorite spot in all of the Baltimore School for the Arts other than the elevator control room? I’m glad you asked. I have to admit that I have a very special relationship with the elevator button in the basement. That’s right, the one covered in a layer of duct tape. It might not be the cleanest button, or the one that works the best, but it tries really hard. In honor of the underdog elevator button of the basement, this month The Rad Scientist is proud to present a column dedicated to duct tape. (To be totally correct, the basement elevator button is covered in gaffer tape, not duct tape, but duct tape is whole lot more rad.)

Whether you call it duct tape or duck tape, the stuff holds pretty much everything together, from prom dresses to space shuttles. Duct tape is a three-layered powerhouse, with a layer of poly ethylene resin (which is the coolest thing ever, but I’ll get to that in a minute) pressed up against a layer of cloth and adhesive. Duct tape was invented by my new role-model Vesta Stoudt in the 1940s during World War II. While working in the Green River Ordinance Plant in Dixon, Illinois, Stoudt packed ammunition cartridges into boxes. The goddess that she was, Stoudt came up with duct tape to replace the flimsy paper tape holding the ammunition cartridge boxes closed. Stoudt pitched her idea to her superiors, who shot it down. But did that stop Vesta Stoudt? No way! She wrote a personal letter to President Roosevelt explaining how duct tape is strong, yet tearable by hand, and, lo and behold, a few weeks later duct tape was being mass-produced for military use. You, Vesta Stoudt, are truly a rad scientist.

Now for the poly ethylene. Poly ethylene, like I mentioned earlier, is pretty cool. Bear with me here, because it might take a few sentences for this to make sense. Poly ethylene is a vinyl polymer made of a string of polymerised vinyl monomers. The vinyl monomers in poly ethylene are called ethylene. (Ethylene is also called ethene, because scientists like to make things crazy complicated.) Lucky for you, ethylene is the simplest hydrocarbon ever, just two carbon atoms double-bonded to each other, with two hydrogen atoms bonded to each carbon. These ethylene monomers get polymerised, which is a fancy way of saying that they link up, carbon to carbon, like a long chain of carbon double bonds flanked by two rows of hydrogen. That’s it! Now here’s the really cool part. Ethylene is produced in naturally in plants, and is often referred to as the “ripening hormone”. Ethylene smells sweet, too. Would ethylene by any other name smell just as sweet? No! Our sweet baby ethylene has a dark side. Ethylene oxide is an ultra-dangerous form of ethylene found in industrial chemicals that causes all sorts of problems, it is definitely not rad.

When everything is said and done, duct tape, you are the epitome of everything great about America. You’re stylish, you’re good in a pinch, and you’re a loyal friend who’ll stick with me through thick and thin. Millions of years in the future, along with the most famous duos of all time, the likes of Bonnie and Clyde, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Scully and Mulder, Ethel and Lucy, Batman and Robin, I hope that Vesta Stoudt and poly ethylene remain, the power couple behind the majesty that is duct tape.

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