Mothers: the necessity of invention

The printing press. The space shuttle. The microchip. We've solved some incredible challenges. Call me a dreamer, but I believe that someday the great minds of humanity will finally figure out how to have a gas pump tell whether I'm using a debit or credit card. —Me


Yesterday, I (somewhat snarkily) posted the above. Today, let me tell you two quick stories about credit cards, two kinds of tape, mothers, and love.

No doubt you know a credit card has a magnetic strip on the back. But what exactly is that? How does it work? Well, if you're old enough to remember audio tapes (if you're younger than 30, ask your parents), it's actually the same thing. Really. You know how a cassette reader has the little head that the tape runs across? Well, in a cassette player there is a motor that runs the tape along, but when you "swipe" your card, you are actually performing the job of the motor. You can actually "play" a credit card in a tape recorder. It'll sound like garbage, but then so does most top 40 radio today. Ha!

OK, so it works just like a tape. But...it's not really a "tape." It's a solid stripe on a card, not like the flimsy magnetic tape that we're used to. And that's the problem. Suppose you want to use a magnetic tape, because it'll work to store data like the credit card number, the name of the credit card holder etc. That sounds great, but how do you get the tape onto a plastic card without ruining the tape? That was exactly the problem one Forrest Parry was trying to solve in 1960. An engineer for IBM, he knew that the tape would work, but try as he might, he couldn't crack the nut on how to get the tape onto the card. Glue? No. That ended up causing too many tiny wrinkles. Now, Forrest Parry was a family man. Being a good husband, he did what good husbands did: he talked to his wife of 8 years about what he was struggling with at work. Forrest and his wife Dorothea would eventually raise 5 children together. On this day, Dorothea was listening to Forrest as she continued her own work, using a flat iron to iron the family’s clothes. Dorothea listened to her husband explain the problem with the wrinkled tape when inspiration struck her: could the heat of the iron be used to melt the magnetic tape to the plastic card? It would certainly eliminate any wrinkles! Forrest tried it, and of course, it worked to perfection.

And that's the reason why you've been able to swipe a card to enter a hotel room, or get on a train, or easily make purchases. Because 60 years ago, a husband and father and wife and mother spoke to each other as they simply lived their married life, taking care of their households tasks.

This brings us to our second story. Before Forrest Parry was at IBM, he was in the Naval Academy, starting in 1942. That same year, as WWII raged on, a mother by the name of Vesta Stoudt was working in an ordnance plant, packing cartridges used to launch rifle grenades. The boxes were sealed with a waterproof tape. The tape had a tab at the end that you would pull on to quickly open the box. The problem was, the tab would often rip. When this happened, which it often did, you would need to quickly try to open the box with your fingernails or knife. In the meantime, you were probably taking enemy fire.

Vesta Stoudt was a mother, first and foremost. Like mothers do, she recognized there was something her children needed, and therefore it simply had to be done. You see, she had two of her own children serving in the Navy at the time of the war. No doubt she thought of her own sons with each and every box she packed, considering the possibility that their hands might touch the same package that hers had. And what would happen if a box she packed could not be opened by her son in time? For a mother who loves her sons, that simply would not stand.

Vesta had an idea for a better kind of tape. She tested it out and she proved it would work. She was tenacious. She talked to everyone she could. The military is notoriously slow to adopt any changes though. With lives on the line, Vesta decided she would simply stop with the middle-men and go straight to the top: she wrote directly to the President. She writes, "Now your son, my son and our neighbor’s son must pull this tape off some way, perhaps with his teeth or his knife if he is lucky enough to have one, nine chance out of ten he hasn’t any....I suggested we use a strong cloth tape to close seams, and make tab of same. It worked fine, I showed it to different government inspectors they said it was all right, but I could never get them to change tape. I have two sons out there some where, one in the Pacific Island the other one with the Atlantic Fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can’t let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open, the enemy taking their lives, that could have been saved. Had the box been taped with a strong cloth tape that can be opened in a split second. I didn’t know who to write to Mr. President, so have written you hoping for your boys, my boys, and every man that uses the rifle grenade, that this package of rifle cartridges may be taped with the correct tape."

FDR forwarded her letter to the War Production Board. Soon, they sent a letter back to Vesta, telling her her idea had been approved because of its "exceptional merit."

It's quite plausible that Vesta's idea saved the lives of many US Servicemen. Perhaps Forrest Parry may himself have used this new kind of tape during his long military career, before he arrived at IBM. Or, perhaps he used it after. I know I have. The soldiers gave that waterproof tape a name that I bet you've heard of: "duck tape."

So, next time you reach for the duck tape, or pull out your credit card to pay for something, consider the mothers who made it possible. It's true that necessity is the mother of invention. I think very often though, mothers are the necessity of invention.

Vesta Stoudt died on Monday, May 9th 1966, the day after Mother's day.