Adhesives Magazine

One Day of Serendipity, a Lifetime of Achievement

January 1, 2011
Harry W. Coover has been awarded the National Medal for Technology and Innovation.



November 17, 2010, was a momentous and historic day for the adhesives industry and, in particular, for Harry Coover, Ph.D., inventor of cyanoacrylates, better known as superglues. Coover was presented with the National Medal of Technology and Innovation by President Barack Obama in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C.

Major Discovery

The invention and discovery of the adhesive properties of cyanaoacrylates was quite remarkable and, as Coover admits, somewhat fortuitous. He actually invented them twice! In the 1940s at Eastman Kodak, Rochester, NY, he was told to develop an optically clear plastic for making precision gun sights for the war effort.

“Cyanoacrylates worked great in reproducing the mold for the gunsights,” he says. “The problem was, everything I was working with stuck to everything else. It was just a big pain.”

In the early 1950s at Eastman, Kingsport, TN, Coover was managing a group of chemists who were developing new acrylic polymers for jet aircraft canopies. He suggested trying cyanoacrylates. A young chemist tried to measure the refractive index of the monomer and stuck the prisms of the refractometer together permanently.

Coover had a sudden realization. “Serendipity had given me a second chance,” he says. “What we had was a new superglue. I went and got the material and started sticking everything in the laboratory together.”

Cyanoacrylates were the world’s first single-component, high-strength adhesives. They have developed into a multibillion-dollar global industry that encompasses numerous industrial, consumer, and medical applications.

Harry Coover, front, with members of his family at the White House for the Award Ceremony.

Recognition

The National Medal of Technology and Innovation is administered for the White House by the U.S. Department of Commerce’s U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. The award recognizes those who have made lasting contributions to America’s competitiveness and quality of life, and have helped strengthen the nation’s technological workforce. Nominees are selected by a distinguished independent committee representing both the private and public sectors. This medal represents the highest honor for achievement in science and technology that is bestowed by the U.S. president.

Preceding the medal presentation was a Tuesday night gala at the Ritz-Carlton hotel in the Capital, where 13 members of Coover’s family joined the other laureates’ friends, families, and colleagues from the science, technology, and business communities to celebrate the honorees’ extraordinary achievements. The adhesives industry was represented by Ron Gravette and Marcia Littler of the Super Glue Corp. The gala celebration provided the opportunity for the audience to see and hear in the laureates’ own words what they do, why they do what they do, who inspired them and what they want to share with the next generation.

There is no greater demonstration of our nation’s appreciation of these presidential medal honorees than the ceremony itself. The majesty of the ceremony is matched by the setting in the East Room of the White House. The laureates were announced and proceeded through the center doorway of the East Room, which was filled to capacity with their friends, family, colleagues, congressional representatives, cabinet members and the cameras of the White House press corps.

In his address, President Obama said that the honorees’ achievements “stand as a testament to the ingenuity, to their zeal for discovery and to the willingness to give of themselves and to sacrifice in order to expand the reach of human understanding. All of us have benefited from their work.”

Following the presidential address, each laureate’s citation was read by a White House military staff member as he or she walked over to President Obama to receive their medal and receive a place in U.S. history. Coover’s citation reads: Harry W. Coover, Eastman Chemical Company, TN “For his invention of cyanoacrylates-novel adhesives known widely to consumers as ‘super glues’-which today play significant roles in medicine and industry.”

President Obama concluded the event by saying, “Finally, let me just once again say to all the honorees who are here tonight, you have truly revolutionized the world in ways that are profoundly important to people in their day-to-day lives, but also help to create those steps in human progress that really make us who we are as human beings. And so we could not be prouder of you, could not be more grateful to you for your contributions.”

Lifetime Achievements

In addition to his work on cyanoacrylates, Coover is one of the world’s great inventors, with 460 patents and over 60 publications. He has received numerous other awards, including the Industrial Research Institute Medal Achievement Award and Maurice Holland Award, the American Chemical Society’s Earl B. Barnes Award, and the AIC Chemical Pioneers Award. He was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in 2004 to join such figures as Thomas Edison, Alexander Graham Bell, Henry Ford, Samuel Morse, as well as George Eastman, the founder of Eastman Kodak.1

One of Dr. Harry’s favorite and apposite expressions is, “Innovation is the sum of invention and commercialization.” This philosophy ruled his commercial life and perfectly illustrates why this national award for technology and innovation is so appropriate for him. I know I speak for all of his former colleagues, friends and the entire adhesives industry when I say that we congratulate him for this award and his extraordinary lifetime achievements.

A video of the presentation is available at www.whitehouse.gov/live.

About the Author

Dave Dunn, Ph.D., is president of FLD Enterprises, a technical and management consultancy specializing in the adhesives and sealants industry. A former vice president and director of Loctite Corp., he writes ASI’s monthly “Ask Dr. Dave” column. He can be reached at www.fldenterprises.com.

Reference

1. Dunn, Dave, “SuperGlue–Superman,” Adhesives & Sealants Industry, July/August 2004, p. 24.

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