After Hours

Geek Trivia: A date with destiny

What world-famous product that earned its name from an ethnic slur first shipped on Sept. 8, 1930?

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Sept. 8 represents both a boon and a bane to those precious few of us who make some portion of our living writing trivia columns and calendars, simply because Sept. 8 is a date on which a whole bunch of trivially interesting events have occurred.

Take, for example, the obvious anniversary that perhaps the largest number of global geeks might choose to celebrate: On Sept. 8, 1966, the first episode of Star Trek appeared on NBC television, marking the humble beginning of the most recognized and successful science-fiction franchise in television history.

But the techno-military history buffs out there will remember Sept. 8 as a day of particular infamy. On this date in 1944, the first of Germany's V2 rocket attacks on London took place. Of course, British Prime Minister Winston Churchill would not publicly acknowledge the attacks until Nov. 10 of that year, after more than 100 rockets had struck the city.

For sports enthusiasts, especially those of the non-American variety, Sept. 8 marks the birth of the world's first major professional football (aka soccer) association. The English Football League, precursor to today's FA Premier League, kicked off on Sept. 8, 1888 as an organization of football clubs in England and Wales.

One hundred and ten years later, American sports fans would enjoy their own banner event on this date, when Mark McGwire hit his 62nd home run of the season for Major League Baseball's St. Louis Cardinals. This much-anticipated hit shattered Roger Maris' single-season home run record that had stood since 1961. (Of course, only three years later, Barry Bonds of the San Francisco Giants broke McGwire's record and went on to hit 73 homers in 2001.)

And, just for the old-school academics out there, the Massachusetts Bay Colony formally chartered Harvard College (not yet a university), the first institute of higher learning in the New World, on Sept. 8, 1636.

So, for the record, Harvard, Star Trek, and professional football (soccer) all share a birthday on Sept. 8—and we haven't even asked our weekly question yet.

On Sept. 8, 1930, a world-famous consumer product would ship for the first time. It would soon become a household word despite the fact that this brand name actually originated from an ethnic slur.

WHAT WORLD-FAMOUS PRODUCT THAT EARNED ITS NAME FROM AN ETHNIC SLUR FIRST SHIPPED ON SEPT. 8, 1930?

What world-famous product with a brand name derived from an ethnic slur first debuted in 1930 on the trivia-heavy date of Sept. 8?

The product in question is Scotch tape, which on the above-mentioned date delivered its first trial shipment to Shellmar Products Corporation, a Chicago-based cellophane bakery wrap printer. And while many use the term "scotch tape" to describe any kind of cellophane adhesive tape, "Scotch" is actually an actively trademarked brand name held by 3M.

So where is the ethnic slur? Merriam-Webster defines the adjective Scotch as merely a synonym for Scottish, as in hailing from Scotland.

One must look to the second definition of Scotch: Inclined to frugality. For those of you too young or too decent to be up on your ethnic stereotypes, society has sometimes characterized persons of Scottish descent as being fiscally stingy. So, at least in Depression-era terms, you could use the adjective Scotch interchangeably with cheap.

How did an ethnic slur contribute to naming adhesive tape? It actually came out of product testing. Existing types of adhesive tape were ill-suited for creating two-tone paint finishes on customized cars, a highly popular American fad in the years leading up to the 1929 stock market crash.

Product developer Richard Drew therefore gave an early version of masking tape to a St. Paul auto painter for testing. However, this version of the tape only had adhesive along its outer edges, rather than along the entire width of the tape. Not surprisingly, the tape would not consistently stick to the auto bodies during the paint process.

Thus, the unnamed St. Paul painter ostensibly told Drew, "Take this tape back to those Scotch [meaning cheap] bosses of yours, and tell them to put more adhesive on it!" To invoke a pun, both the name and the advice stuck.

Drew revised his design, which was a success and, a few years later, created the popular cellophane with which most people associate the trademark. Scotch tape became one of the few product success stories to emerge from the Great Depression. Despite its tacky use of stereotypes, it does make for some great Geek Trivia.

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The Quibble of the Week

If you uncover a questionable fact or debatable aspect of this week's Geek Trivia, just post it in the discussion area of the article. Every week, yours truly will choose the best post from the assembled masses and discuss it in the next edition of Geek Trivia.

Our latest quibble comes from TechRepublic member Rich.frueh, who responded to the Aug. 3 edition of Geek Trivia, "Before spam was spam."

"Brad Templeton has a very well-researched page on the origins of Net spam, including an attribution to me—though that's only because I responded to a survey of his, not that I'm a 'Net guru.' His conclusion is that it came from the MUDs [multi-user-dungeons] in '85, to Bitnet's Relay, and so to the rest of the Net. He also has the first-known spam e-mail—from 1978."

I'm not certain this counts as an accredited repudiation, but in the interests of equal time (and a dearth of other quibbles), we'll run with it.

The Trivia Geek, also known as Jay Garmon, is a former advertising copywriter and Web developer who's duped TechRepublic into underwriting his affinity for movies, sci-fi, comic books, technology, and all things geekish or subcultural.

About Jay Garmon

Jay Garmon has a vast and terrifying knowledge of all things obscure, obtuse, and irrelevant. One day, he hopes to write science fiction, but for now he'll settle for something stranger — amusing and abusing IT pros. Read his full profile. You can a...

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