Many inventions begin their lives in the service of their country, and duct tape is no exception. Military officials tasked researchers at the Permacel division of Johnson & Johnson with developing a tape that would keep ammunition cases dry during World War II. Their solution: a three-ply tape that sandwiched a fabric mesh between a layer of polyethylene on top and a rubber-based adhesive on the bottom. It was exceedingly strong and waterproof, inspiring admirers to call it "duck" tape. It even had the color of ducks -- a drab olive-brown.
After the war, soldiers returned to a booming housing market, and many took jobs on building sites. Recalling the really strong tape from their military days, they recommended it to heating, ventilating and air-conditioning (HVAC) contractors, who needed a reliable adhesive to hold heating and air conditioning ductwork together. Soon, manufacturers started making the tape with a silver-colored polyethylene top so it matched the aluminum ducts.
Today, the usefulness of duct tape extends far beyond the basement. People use it to make everything from handbags and wallets to raincoats and shoes. And, of course, where would impromptu car repairs be without the ubiquitous silver-sided tape to hold sagging mufflers, cover broken windows and hide rusted rocker panels.