Dr. Silver’s death was announced by 3M — maker of products including Scotch tape — where he had worked for nearly three decades. He had cardiac ailments unrelated to a heart transplant that he underwent 27 years ago, said his wife, Linda Silver.
Just as scholars of the ancient world study stone tablets to understand the societies whence they came, future scholars might one day pore over Post-it Notes, handling them with the white gloves used to leaf through the pages of rare books and seeking to divine from them the daily rituals of 20th- and 21st-century human life.
Post-it Notes, those scholars would discern, were a ubiquitous paper product that began life as a solid pad before its lightly sticky sheets, one by one, were dispersed to the wind, each carrying a phone number or grocery list, an admonition that an assignment was “due ASAP!!” or that the recipient should “CALL MOM,” a reminder to “pick up cat food” or a quick “Love you more.”
The Post-it Note was credited to two principal inventors — Dr. Silver, tasked by 3M in 1968 with creating a new superstrong adhesive, and Art Fry, a colleague who discovered an application for the intriguing substance that Dr. Silver produced.
His adhesive at first seemed a failure. It was weaker even than a schoolchild’s art glue. But it had an unusual characteristic: It could be attached to a surface, peeled off and reattached without damaging the surface or losing stickiness.
Even under magnification, Dr. Silver recalled, the new adhesive appeared most unusual.
“I saw beautiful, bright, clear, crystalline spheres — like little glass balls,” he told the Newark Star-Ledger in 2000. “They were optically clear, soft and rubbery.”
Gorgeous as his chemical compound may have been, Dr. Silver struggled to find a marketable application for it. It was, he observed, “a solution waiting for a problem to solve.” That problem was identified in 1974 by Fry, a 3M scientist who sang in a Presbyterian church choir. He marked each week’s musical selections with scraps of paper, which, to his abiding annoyance, fluttered to the floor when he opened his hymnal.
“I’m looking over the guy’s shoulder next to me, trying to find the page,” Fry told NPR years later, remembering the fateful choir practice when he had his epiphany. “And I thought, I wonder if I could make a bookmark that would stick to the paper [but not] tear the paper apart if you try to pull it off. And then I thought of Spence’s adhesive. Aha.”
Together they created a prototype of the product that became the Post-it Note, trying it out at 3M offices and then, in 1977, in four test markets under the name Press ’n Peel. Languishing at first, the product got a boost from a marketing spree in Boise, Idaho, and was distributed nationally beginning in 1980. It quickly became a staple of office supply closets and American kitchens — once described by a 3M spokesperson as the household “command center” — selling in the billions.
“It was always a self-advertising product because customers would put the notes on documents they sent to others, arousing the recipient’s curiosity,” Dr. Silver said, according to the company website. “They would look at it, peel it off and play with it, and then go out and buy a pad for themselves.”
First produced in canary yellow, Post-it Notes are available today in an array of pinks, oranges, yellows, greens and blue. In an irony that brings Dr. Silver’s chemical experimentation full circle, the product is also available in a “Super Sticky” incarnation.
Spencer Ferguson Silver III was born in San Antonio on Feb. 6, 1941. His father was an accountant, and his mother was a secretary.
Dr. Silver moved to Phoenix at age 13 and received a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Arizona State University in 1962. He received a doctorate in organic chemistry from the University of Colorado at Boulder four years later and was hired the same year to work in 3M’s research laboratory.
Survivors include his wife of 55 years, the former Linda Martin, of St. Paul; a daughter, Jennifer Silver, of Woodland Hills, Calif.; and two grandchildren. His daughter Allison Anderson died in 2017.
Dr. Silver received 37 patents during his employment with 3M, according to the company, from which he retired in 1996. He and Fry were inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2010.
Speaking to the Star Ledger, Dr. Silver wondered about the tendency among consumers never to use an entire Post-it Note pad before replacing it. There are always a few lonely blanks leafs, he observed, before the supply closet is raided for a new stash.
He drew almost cosmic meaning from the nature of the adhesive he had invented, one that perhaps will not be lost on those future scholars who might one day study Post-it Notes as relics of a bygone time.
“It’s not soluble,” he said of the adhesive. “It doesn’t break down. The paper will eventually deteriorate, but the stickiness will always remain.”
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