Harry Coover, Jr., M.S. ’43, Ph.D. ’44 Chemistry
Sometimes the best ideas come to us when we’re not looking for them. And sometimes, today’s failure is tomorrow’s success. That’s the lesson to take away from the life of Harry Coover, Jr., the accidental inventor of Super Glue.
Just to be clear: Coover had a long career, and he made many, many other discoveries and breakthroughs. In fact when he passed away in 2011 at the age of 94, he held over 460 patents, and had just been honored with a National Medal of Technology and Innovation from President Obama. But when you invent a product as ubiquitous and beloved as Super Glue, that tends to be what you’re remembered for. Not that Coover minded. “I think he got a kick out of being Mr. Super Glue,” says his daughter, Dr. Melinda Coover Paul.
Coover first encountered Super Glue—chemical alias: cyanoacrylate—while searching for a material to manufacture clear rifle sights out of during World War II. Cyanoacrylate was not the solution to the problem that day, for reasons that are probably obvious: it stuck to everything.
Coover moved on. But a few years later, when a lab he headed at Eastman Kodak was searching for a temperature-proof coating for jet cockpits, he recognized the substance’s potential. One of the lab’s researchers (surnamed Joyner, because every so often the universe displays a wonderful sense of humor) found that he had stuck together the two lenses of a refractometer when trying to test the refraction rate of cyanoacrylate. A $3000 piece of lab equipment was ruined, and when Joyner went to his boss he was sure he was fired—but this time, Coover was able to overlook the immediate failure and see that he had stumbled upon something much more valuable than what he had been looking for.
Super Glue, originally marketed as Eastman 910, because it had been the 910th substance that the lab at Eastman had tested, was a hit. But it was more than a lifesaver around the house—it was also used in spray form to close soldiers’ wounds during the Vietnam War. Before it came into wide use, soldiers would often hemorrhage on the battlefield before they could reach the hospital. Military adoption of the substance undoubtedly saved thousands of lives. To this day, however, the F.D.A. has never approved medical use of cyanoacrylates, so proceed with caution—or not. You never know when you might have a serendipitous accident.