Poet's Notebook: Post master

In celebration of Arthur Fry, and his sticky yellow invention.

Watch steps.

—Post-it Note stuck on upstairs staircase in the Meinke household

bet you didn’t know that Friday, August 19th is Arthur Fry’s birthday. Arthur Fry? you ask. Well, he’s only the guy who invented those little yellow squares we all use: Post-it Notes.

How did we ever manage without Post-it Notes? The ubiquitous stickers have crept up on me, but I scarcely acknowledged them until Jeanne confronted me with this photo of my desk. Jeanne has an artist’s eye, and notices things like that. She uses them too, but lines them up neatly on our kitchen counter (shopping lists), on our calendar (dates to remember), and her work table (drawing ideas).

I myself use them randomly and they pile up around my desk like autumn leaves in Vermont.

Typical of many Eureka! moments, the idea for these famous stickems came about like a gift from heaven; and this one actually arrived in church. In 1973, Fry was a research scientist at Minnesota Mining & Manufacturing, and went to a seminar given by another 3M scientist, Spencer Silver. Silver had been working on a strong adhesive that could be used in building planes, when he accidentally developed a weak one, called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres (wonderful name!) that peeled off without leaving sticky marks, and could be reused. But nobody had figured out a way to use it.

Fry sang in his church choir at night, and used pieces of paper to mark the pages. One Sunday, shortly after the seminar, Fry picked up his hymnbook and some of his makeshift bookmarks fell out, as they often did. As with Saul on the road to Damascus, the scales fell from Fry’s eyes, and he saw clearly: Silver’s adhesive would make a better bookmark.

The next day he acquired some samples of the adhesive, and applied it to one edge of the page.  He fiddled around with it for some weeks, eventually using yellow squares (another accident: the lab next door had a big pile of yellow paper left over from something else — and this worked, obviously, much better than white on white). It didn’t take long for the yellow Post-it Note to be born.

The use of these notes grew quickly and colorfully, and they’re still ubiquitous despite the proliferation of iPhones, which carry unlimited information in our pockets. Studio@620 even put on a play about a couple addicted to Post-it Notes, concluding with the actors covered head to foot with pieces of paper, looking like old scarecrows, or maybe Puritan minister Jonathan Edwards, who, while making calls on horseback, would pin notes for his sermons and poems on his clothes, organizing them when he reached town.

Fry’s little notes arrived in time for an aging America, where close to 50 million citizens are over 65 — as far as they can remember, anyway. It’s certain my use of these yellow markers has increased like, and with, the gray hairs on my head. We’ve lived in our two-story house for almost 50 years, and many friends worry about our wooden staircase leading down to tile floors (my mother once climbed up them on her hands and knees). “You’re going to forget your age, run down the stairs, and break a hip,” is the warning. On the other hand, now that we, and especially me, with my “office” on the second floor, have become more forgetful, going up and down the staircase is my main exercise. So, if I don’t actually tumble down the steps and through the window onto our brick patio, it’s good for me. I keep meaning to stick a Post-It note at the top saying “Think before you step.”

...I think I’ll stick it on right now.

So Happy Birthday Arthur Fry

Some make buildings some build boats

some design planes that fly

and you invented Post-it Notes

You meant it helpfully that day

to organize us more or less...

(I had something else to say

but lost the sticker in this mess)