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September 2, 2003

A public radio commentary

At a picnic yesterday some friends and I got to talking about what makes my tiny cell phone possible. One person suggested the ceramic used to make the transmitter, another spoke of the miracle of the microchip, but curmudgeonly I contented it was glue.

Glue is such a humble thing, yet think of our world without it. No grocery bags, envelopes, books, magazines, paper cups or cardboard boxes. And that's only the low tech end. It also keeps together our microwaves, refrigerators, cars and jets.

Glue also gives our era its sense of style. We associate sleekness with technological advancement, something made possible by glue. Examine any 19th century object and you'll find all sorts of fasteners: bolts, nuts, rivets, pins, staples, nails, screws, stitches, straps, and even bent flaps of tin. Pick up a cell phone and you'll find only a smooth, sleek surface; the pieces of the phone are held together by a type of superglue.

Two Kodak researchers discovered the glue by accident in the 1940s. As part of the war effort they searched for clear plastic substances for gunsites. They mixed up a batch of what we now call superglue, tossed it between two expensive prisms and measured how much light passed through it. Of course, they found their prisms were stuck together and ruined. They uncovered, though, a key property of superglue, one that makes it so useful today: Superglue works best when applied as a thin layer. This makes superglue unique. For all other glues, a thicker application holds better, but superglue works best with only a tiny amount.

This property makes things like my cell phone look sleek and modern, no globs sticking out. Not only does this thin layer give our material world its look, it also allows superglue to help us understand our past.

It's an essential tool used by paleontologists to preserve fossils. Most fossils burst apart as soon as they're moved from the dig site. In the past, paleontologists covered fossils with Elmer's glue or shellac, but these glues don't penetrate. They reinforced the surface of the fossil, but left the inside weak.

As one paleontologist says, "It's like adding strength by painting a barn." Today they use superglue, which quickly penetrates tiny crevices, then hardens to strengthen the fossil.

What's next for superglue? Us. The FDA recently approved replacing traditional surgical sutures with a special type of superglue.

Copyright 2003 William S. Hammack Enterprises