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Harry Wesley Coover Jr. dies at 94; inventor of the powerful adhesive Super Glue

He was described as 'one of the true legends of the adhesive industry.' His invention was the result of an unexpected discovery during research attempting to find a heat-resistant polymer for jet airplane canopies.

March 31, 2011|By Dennis McLellan, Los Angeles Times
  • Harry Wesley Coover Jr. is seen at home in 2004, when he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame. Last year, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.
Harry Wesley Coover Jr. is seen at home in 2004, when he was inducted into… (David Grace / Kingsport…)

Harry Wesley Coover Jr., the inventor of Super Glue, the powerful adhesive whose uses extend beyond the household to industry and medicine, has died. He was 94.

Coover died of congestive heart failure Saturday at his home in Kingsport, Tenn., said his daughter, Dr. Melinda Coover Paul.

Coover once was described as "one of the true legends of the adhesive industry," and his invention of what came to be known as Super Glue — among other brand names — was the result of an unexpected discovery.

As a young chemist with Eastman Kodak Co. in Rochester, N.Y., during World War II, Coover was part of a team researching chemicals known as cyanoacrylates in an attempt to find an optically clear plastic for precision gun sights.

"The damn problem was everything was sticking to everything else," Coover told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette in 2005. "We had a hard time using it in molds."

In 1951, after transferring to Eastman's operations in Kingsport, Tenn., Coover was supervising a research team that was trying to find a heat-resistant polymer for jet airplane canopies.

At one point, according to a 2004 Akron Beacon Journal article, Coover recalled his earlier work on the gun sights and asked a lab associate to try cyanoacrylate.

The upshot: His fellow researcher destroyed an expensive refractometer when the compound caused its two prisms to stick together while he was taking a reading of it.

"He thought he was going to be fired when he came to tell me about it," recalled Coover, who had a revelation: "I went out and got a sample and started sticking everything together I could get my hands on: glass, rubber, metal."

As he put it in his 2005 interview with the Post-Gazette: "It suddenly struck me that what we had was not a casting material but a super glue."

Eastman Kodak began marketing the unique adhesive as "Eastman 910" in 1958.

A year later, Coover appeared on Garry Moore's "I've Got a Secret" television show, where he demonstrated the new product to a live audience: He was hoisted into the air while holding on to a crossbar that was screwed into one of two metal cylinders that were fastened together by one drop of glue.

"They let Dad down and Garry Moore said, 'I bet that could hold two people,' " Paul said. "They both got on this little handlebar thing. They gave the word and the people cranked it up again and it lifted both of them. Dad [later] laughed and said, 'If it hadn't worked, I'd be in trouble.' "

During the Vietnam War, medics used a spray version of the adhesive on wounded soldiers to stop bleeding before they could be transported to hospitals.

"I think it helped save a lot of lives," Coover told the Rochester Democrat and Chronicle in 2004. "The one thing I'm most proud of is the medical applications." Those include using the compound for suture-less surgery and for coating aneurysms in the brain to prevent rupture.

In his 2004 interview with the Akron Beacon Journal, Coover said the discovery of Super Glue "should serve as a reminder to all of us to be open-minded and curious enough to pursue unexpected results."

"I wasn't open-minded enough when I was working with it for gun sights, or we could have had it earlier."

Coover was born March 6, 1917, in Newark, Del. He earned a bachelor's degree in chemistry at Hobart College in 1941 and his master's and doctoral degrees in chemistry at Cornell University.

Coover, who held more than 460 patents, retired as vice president of the Chemicals Division for Development for Tennessee Eastman Co. in 1984. He later worked as a consultant for various companies.

In 2004, he was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame in Akron, Ohio. And last year, President Obama awarded him the National Medal of Technology and Innovation.

Muriel, Coover's wife of more than 60 years, died in 2005. In addition to his daughter, he is survived by his sons, Harry III and Stephen; and four grandchildren.

dennis.mclellan@latimes.com

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