When Harry Coover passed away in 2011, virtually all of the obituaries written by news outlets highlighted the fact that his discovery of Super Glue was a happy accident. Few reported that a serious accident nearly prevented him from turning 17.
The 16-year-old native of Newark, Delaware, born 100 years ago this March, was driving a car when hit by a train at a railroad crossing. Coover lapsed into a coma that lasted well over a month; the National Academy of Sciences said two of his sisters nursed him back to health. He never remembered the accident or anything in his life before that.
“Serendipity gave me a second chance,” Coover once told the National Science and Technology Medals Foundation. Regardless of that statement’s intended context, it was true in more ways than one.
Too sticky, until….
As an undergraduate at Hobart College in Geneva, New York, he chose chemical science as a major and later joined Eastman Kodak as a research chemist. While experimenting with cyanoacrylate for use in clear plastic gun sights in 1942 during World War II, he was pleased with the compound’s durability—but not so pleased with what he considered a big drawback.
“Everything was sticking to everything,” Coover recalled on more than one occasion. The U.S. government eventually canceled the contract.
Nine years later, while testing a heat-resistant polymer for use in aircraft windshields, he remembered his work with cyanoacrylate. A colleague was able to permanently bond the lenses of an expensive optical instrument with one drop of the liquid. The cyanoacrylate solidified following contact with trace amounts of moisture, creating a super-strong polymer layer between the two surfaces.
Suddenly, the super stickiness was not an obstacle but a marketable invention with many uses. On Oct. 23, 1956, Coover received U.S. Patent No. 2,768,109 for an “Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Compositions/Superglue” and began plans for commercialization. Eastman Kodak packaged the adhesive as “Eastman 910” and began marketing it in 1958.
“You can make the greatest invention in the world, but it really will never amount to anything until people .. take it and make it available and teach people how to use it,” he said on November 17, 2010, the day he received the National Medal of Technology and Innovation at the White House. “Just inventing something is not the whole story, by a longshot.”
Coover got creative with ways to showcase the product, most notably during an appearance on the TV game show “I’ve Got a Secret” in 1958. He amazed millions of viewers by lifting host Garry Moore off the ground using one drop of the Crazy Glue. He also appeared in a TV commercial for the product.
Once word spread about the product’s effectiveness, it was found to have a number of crucial uses besides repairing household and personal items: sealing blood vessels in open-heart surgery; gluing leg fractures in rabbits and dogs; recovering fingerprints at crime scenes. He was most proud of its function during the Vietnam War, when a spray version was used as a coagulant on gaping wounds.
By the time Coover retired, he had 460 patents, a large number of those related to his glue. He was also responsible for advances in areas such as graft polymerization, olefin polymerization and organophosphorus chemistry. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004.
In perhaps one more accident, Coover didn’t become rich through Super Glue.
His son-in-law, Dr. Vincent E. Paul, told The Daily Mail that the product didn’t become successful commercially until the patents expired. “He did very, very well in his career,” Dr. Paul said, “but he did not glean the royalties from Super Glue that you might think.”