A while ago, a spring in the on/off switch on my 20-year-old TV died. "It's easy", I said to my wife, "I'll just pull the 240V plug out of the wall, discharge the 25,000 volts off the TV set, pull the chassis apart, solder in a new switch, and put it all back together again". Well, she raised her eyebrows at me, and asked "Why don't you use duct tape, like this?", while simultaneously tearing a strip off from a roll that happened to be lying around, and taping down the switch down into the On Position. And so it came to be a semi-permanent, though effective, repair, needing a new strip of duct tape every week or so, a job that takes about 10 seconds each time.
Most people believe that duct tape was invented for air-conditioning ducts - but it wasn't, and in fact, for some time, was not allowed to be used for that purpose.
Duct tape was invented during World War II by Johnson & Johnson, which had much experience in adhesive surgical tapes. The military wanted a strong, waterproof self-adhesive tape to keep water out of ammunition cases. The first duct tape was a dull greenish cotton-mesh fabric, that was waterproofed with polyurethane sealant, which was then coated with a rubber-based adhesive. Not only was it strong, but you didn't need scissors to cut it - you could tear it, longways and crossways, by hand.
At that time, it was called "Duck Tape" (as in Quack Quack). We don't know why, but there are three popular theories. One is that the soldiers called it "Duck Tape", because water rolled off it like off a duck's back. Another theory relates to the layer of cotton "duck" cloth. The third theory claims some kind of linkage to the amphibious vehicle called "duck", from the manufacturer's code of DUKW. And because it was used on ammunition cases, it was also called "gun tape". In the racing car business, it is called "100 mile-per-hour tape" and "200 mile-per-hour tape", because it will stay on cars at that speed. Airforce technicians call it "1,000 mile-per-hour" tape, because it will stick to the radome (radar domes) of jet fighters at that phenomenal speed.
The very first use of the phrase "duct tape" (with a "T" as in Tango) seems to be in 1970, when the bankrupt Larry Plotnik Company of Chelsea, Massachusetts unloaded 14,000 rolls of the stuff. Perhaps it comes from the Latin, "ducere", meaning "to lead".
By this time, a variety of duck/duct tape was being used to join sections of air-conditioning ducts. It had now evolved into a silvery version that was stronger, with a more powerful adhesive - and was nothing like the stuff you buy in hardware stores. HVAC (Heating Ventilation & Air Conditioning) professionals wouldn't dream of using the inferior grades of tape. But even the top grades are not that good. In the late 1990s, the Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory in California looked at how much energy escaped from air-con ducts. Surprisingly, they found that clear polyester tape was better than the best HVAC-grade duct tape. In response, various US government bodies prohibited the use of duct tape in the HVAC industry - and so, the industry responded by developing new improved grades.
A matt black version of duct tape is used in the theatre, music and entertainment industry, and is called gaffer tape. Duct tape was used by astronauts in the crippled Apollo 13 mission in 1970. They made an emergency carbon dioxide scrubber, which kept them alive. And there is a grade made specifically for nuclear reactors. On February 10, 2003, the US Department of Homeland Security broadcast that a terrorist attack was likely, and advised Americans to buy plastic sheeting and duct tape, in case of biological or chemical attack. In Scandinavia, duct tape is called "Jesus tape", because it can fix anything. But whatever it's called, it's magic stuff.
A whole mythology has risen around duct tape. Ed Smylie was one of the NASA engineers who, on the ground, designed the lifesaving cardboard/duct tape assembly for the Apollo 13 astronauts. He said that he wasn't worried, once he knew the astronauts had duct tape on board. In 2005 he said, "One thing a Southern boy will never say is 'I don't think duct tape will fix it.' " It's claimed that the Do-It-Yourselfer needs only two tools - duct tape to stick stuff together, and WD-40 to unstick stuff. And Carl Zwanzig, the famous sci-fi fan, said, "duct tape is like The Force - it has a light side and a dark side, and it binds the Universe together."