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The History of Glue
Image credit: Julia Bujalski

Ancient Glues

Glue is by no means a new concept. There is evidence that our Pleistocene ancestors in southern Africa used glue-like adhesives during the Middle Stone Age, which dates back to 280,000 – 25,000 years ago. These were likely plant-based adhesives used to help fashion tools such as spears. As far back as 5,200 years ago, axes and arrows were held together with glue. There are also 3,500-year-old records of glue being used to create papyrus, and the first written record of glue was found in Ancient Egyptian hieroglyphics. Egyptians were the first to use glue to join together furniture; we have samples that were preserved in the tombs of some Egyptian Pharaohs that date back to over 2,500 years ago. In Ancient Rome and Ancient Greece, glue was used for daily tasks as well as construction and art; Roman mosaic floors and tiled walls both utilized early forms of glue.

Animal Glue

The earliest forms of glue were made from plant resin and often heat-treated. But after the fall of the Roman Empire, the most common forms of glue were made from animal parts. Animal hide, connective tissue, and hooves were slowly cooked down until a jelly-like substance formed. Then the substance would be dried out and stored in a powder form until it was needed. To use it, you would then need to add water to the powder and cook the mixture until it reached the desired thickness. Because of this complicated process, glue was mostly used by furniture makers and craftsmen – not the general public. Glue remained a specialty product until 20th century.

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Rubber Glue

In 1830, glue made from natural rubber extract was created. Still used today, rubber glue is especially useful for gluing metal and rubber surfaces. With the rise of the automotive industry in the 19th century, several different types of rubber glue were invented. Rubber glue was also used in the construction, engineering, and clothing industries. One of the most popular forms of rubber glue still used today is rubber cement, an adhesive that can be used to glue something down that will later need to be removed without damage, such as paper or photographs. However, care should always be taken when using rubber cement, as it can cause damage to objects over time.

Modern Glues

Around the time of World War I, several new varieties of glue were invented, including milk-derived glue and nitrocellulose glue. Advancements in the plastics industry in the 1930s enabled further innovation in the glue industry, so scientists began to create industrial adhesives. Plastic and synthetic resin glues were also introduced during this time. Glue was used extensively during World War II to repair objects quickly, and this spurred further innovation. It was during this time that the discovery of new compounds like neoprenes, epoxies, and acrylonitriles took place. After World War II ended, many of the scientific innovations made during the war became commercially available. This meant that for the first time, the general population was able to get any type of glue they would like – including waterproof glue. The new options were a far cry from the old animal-derived glues that had been water-sensitive, weaker, and less sticky.

Super Glue

In 1942, an American chemist named Harry Coover Jr. accidentally created the first cyanoacrylate glue. He and his team were trying to create a way to make clear plastic gun sites for use in World War II. Their focus was on cyanoacrylates, a unique class of material known for being extremely sticky and often used to help seal wounds. Coover realized that the material had potential beyond the wartime needs of gun sites and wound sealing. By the late 1950s, he and his employer, Eastman Kodak, had released the first super glue available to consumers, called Eastman 910. Super glue quickly became a staple in modern society due to its fast drying time and ultra-strong bonding capabilities. In fact, superglue is used in a variety of industries today including construction, aerospace, engineering, and medicine.

The 21st Century and Beyond

Today, glue is just as popular as it always has been. In fact, glue is considered even more of a necessity than ever before and is used in nearly every industry in the modern world. There are currently five types of glue available: solvent glues, water-based glues, two-part glues, cyanoacrylate glues (super glues), and animal glues (which are no longer widely used). New, stronger, and more flexible glues are continuously being developed.

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