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Duct tape madness

Which is correct — duck or duct?

DuctTapeGuys site. Duct tape doesn’t work on ducts.
  • DuctTapeGuys site. Duct tape doesn’t work on ducts.

Duct tape has saved me only once. I’ve used it plenty but only needed it one time. My Oldsmobile ruptured a radiator hose on the Mass Pike on the way to a Boston Bruins playoff game. I fixed the hose in no time with duct tape and was on my way. I drove the car that way for weeks. That’s mv duct tape story. But that’s not duct tape’s only story.

Remember when you were little how much you loved being the one to tell your younger cousins there was no Santa Claus? That perverse pleasure of being the bearer of bad news never goes away. An equally pleasing ritual, this one of early adulthood, is catching your savvy friend saying “duck tape” instead of “duct tape” and being the one to tell him he’s an idiot.

The thing is, duct tape was once called duck tape, so who’s an idiot now? It could very well be that that honor goes to Tim and Jim, the Duct Tape Guys, who bring you Duct Tape on the Web (www.ducttapeguys.com). Jim and Tim, who are brothers-in-law and look like supporting cast members on an episode of Walker, Texas Ranger, came up with their idea for a federation of duct-tape enterprises one Christmas Eve when the power went out in the small Wisconsin town where they were having a family gathering. Jim said, “I bet I could fix this power outage with duct tape.” Tim, having grown up on transparent, masking, and other lesser tapes, said, “What do you mean?” The Duct Tape Guys have since authored three books documenting hundreds of uses for duct tape, marketed a duct tape Page-A-Day Calendar, written the spin-off WD-40 Book, and launched this vast website. (By the way, Jim rips right, flattens left, and Tim rips left, flattens back-handed right.)

Adhesive tape, Jim and Tim tell us, was invented in the 1920s by 3M Company researchers. But during World War II, a new tape was developed for the American armed forces, who needed a strong, waterproof tape to keep moisture out of ammunition cases. Because it was waterproof, soldiers called it “duck” tape. The versatile tape was also used as a mending material that could be ripped by hand and used to make quick repairs to jeeps, aircraft, and other military equipment. The Johnson & Johnson Company’s Permacel division, which had by then developed its own line of adhesive tapes, helped the war effort by combining cloth mesh, which rips easily, with a rubber-based adhesive and a rubberized coating. Following the war, housing in the United States boomed and many new homes featured forced-air heating and air-conditioning units that relied on duct work to distribute warmth and coolness.

Johnson & Johnson’s strong military tape made the perfect material for binding and repairing the duct work. By changing the color of the tape’s rubberized top coat from Army green to sheet-metal gray, “duct” tape was born.

Besides this etymological chronicle, the site includes information on the Duct Tape Political Party, a duct-tape curriculum for educators, a Stump the Duct Tape Guy contest, and a news service — “When news breaks, we duct tape it.” And the news does break. In Los Angeles, where the USC administration has resorted to covering the Tommy Trojan statue each fall with duct tape in order to prevent vandalism before the UCLA game. And in Ann Arbor, where when it came time for the University of Michigan College of Engineering to dedicate a new building for student design projects, duct tape was chosen for the ribbon-cutting ceremony. “There are some things that all engineers hold dear, and one of these things is duct tape,” said Dean Stephen Director as he snipped the ceremonial tape. And in Cosmopolitan, which recently told women to duct tape their breasts when they can’t wear a bra with their outfit.

Duct tapers are competitive animals, and so a spirit of one-upsmanship characterizes the anecdotes posted at the site. Lori Green, for example, boasted, “My grandmother had Alzheimer’s and we couldn’t keep her from climbing out of her wheelchair and falling. Even the most expensive medical restraints wouldn’t keep that little lady put, so we duct-taped her in. Worked great.”

Somehow our ability to find novel uses for duct tape reassures us of our independence from institutional forces. It triggers the few vestiges of an aboriginal temperament that remain in our makeup. Usually a ruptured radiator hose is devastating. It can ruin a whole day, make you miss your plane, cost you money. But you can fix the rupture in less than a minute with duct tape and drive away with a primal sense of triumph, having relied on nothing but your hands.

Jim and Tim do offer one warning, though. Duct tape doesn’t work on ducts. A recent study at the Department of Energy’s Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory found that duct tape is an ineffectual sealant of ducts and that it can’t hold up to temperature fluctuations.

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