Today in Tedium: For a little more than a decade, I worked in a loud, dark room. Threading film through projectors, running movies, and repairing the mechanical components of the machines made the hours just fly by. Two of the most vital tools at my disposal were my trusty 7/16 wrench and a big can of WD-40. It’s been years since I worked around that equipment, but I still vividly remember that strange smell and how the substance seemed like a miracle cure for those crazy machines. These days, it seems like everyone has a can of the stuff on their workbench. But WD-40 is a veritable modern American institution and in this time of constant turmoil, it’s always nice to know it’s there on the workbench to help us solve some problems. In today’s Tedium, we’re looking at the unique story of America’s favorite all purpose product: WD-40 — David @ Tedium
Give the gift of research. This Black Friday, Newspapers.com is offering a $20 discount on its popular Publisher Extra plan—which should prove the perfect holiday gift for the budding newsletter author or historian in your life. Tedium swears by it, and you will, too. Check out the deal here.
The year WD-40 was invented by the Rocket Chemical Company. Located in San Diego, CA, the goal of the product was to create something that would prevent rust and corrosion on aircraft. After forty attempts to create the formula, they famously came up with the right one on their 40th attempt. The name WD-40 stands for water displacement, formula 40. It’s first application came as a coating for the Atlas missiles made by Convair in the 1950s.
The surprising origins of America’s most versatile household product
In the early years of the 1950s, the Rocket Chemical Company was on a mission. They wanted to make a line of solvents and degreasers that would prevent rust in the aerospace industry.
The first fifty years of the aerospace industry were marked by innovation and change. From the Wright Brothers’ first flight in 1903 to their 1908 military contract, it picked up interest in a big way. Aircraft played a role in the First World War and prompted an era of evolution and development for the industry. According to The Encyclopedic History of the Aerospace Industry, seven firms built more than 22,500 of the 400-horsepower Liberty engines that eventually laid the foundation of what became an incredibly efficient industry. They were also led by only two companies: Wright Aeronautical Company and Curtiss Aeroplane and Motor.
Government-funded test laboratories came around and the aircraft design as we know it today really took off in the 1920s. Metal didn’t become the most prominent aircraft construction material until the mid 1930s. When it replaced wood, it revealed an entirely new potential problem: corrosion.
Most types of metal—including the ones used in the construction of those early aircraft—have a tendency to rust over time (although there are a few that don’t). Painting, maintenance, cleaning, and hangar storage help attenuate rust issues, but they are sometimes difficult to prevent entirely. Exposing the metal to the oxygen in the air around us causes paint to wear off and rust to build up (the process is known as “uniform surface attack”). Other parts of the plane—like the landing gear and engine—can also develop corrosion over time. Then there’s the issue of moisture building up in crevices and eventually causing rust. A rusty plane is not a good thing. Even so, rust-prevention wasn’t a high priority early on for some sectors of the industry. All that changed as the industry evolved.
The Rocket Chemical Company stood on the precipice of that change with their attempt to solve the problem once and for all. The company was a small, fledgling operation. With only three employees—Norm Larsen, who invented it, Gordon Dawson, and John Gregory. Later, John S. Barry would become president and CEO, eventually molding the company into what it is today.
As their product began gaining traction, it exploded in popularity. Everyone loved it. And much like stealing office supplies, employees of the original WD-40 manufacturing plant inevitably snuck some of the stuff out for home use. So it wasn’t much of a surprise that five years after its invention, the miracle substance appeared on the open market in 1958.
The number of cases sold per day by the WD-40 Company in the early years of the product being commercially available. It was a popular and highly sought after item that lived up to its name. Later, the company would go on to sell an insane amount of the stuff all over the world.
The chemical of a thousand uses
The early days of WD-40 were full of finding novel applications for the compound. Sure, it was great for lubricating things, preventing rust, and displacing water. But there was much more yet to come for the humble chemical.
In 1961, Hurricane Carla—a raging storm that caused extensive property damage, loss, and casualties in Texas and Louisiana over the course of a hellish fourteen days—prompted a large order of WD-40 for the company. Contractors needed it to help rebuild after the tragedy, and it served them well. It was a great help in reconditioning vehicles damaged by the storm and the success of the product in the recovery efforts propelled WD-40 into the public eye for good. NASA famously used it on the Friendship VII, in 1964, the vessel in which astronaut John Glenn circled the earth. Later, it was used by the armed forces during Vietnam to lubricate their firearms.
1969 brought a rebranding effort and the company christened itself The WD-40 Company. After that, the rest is household product history. The brand became synonymous with being a highly versatile solution and by 1993 was used by 80 percent of American households. Since then, the company continues to innovate and expand its packaging concepts.
The original WD-40 came in an aerosol spray can. John S. Barry was keen on packaging the product that way to make it more readily available. Since it has so many applications, a straw was eventually included with it. But the problem many of us have faced is that the straw would eventually disappear. So, WD-40 decided to change the packaging, eventually adding a straw attachment in the early 2000s. Nowadays, it’s sold in big blast cans, jugs, and the old can aerosol standby.
WD-40 also tickles the olfactory senses a bit. A cursory internet search inquiring why it smells weird reveals it may be scented with Vanillin, accounting for the slightly sweet odor. Perhaps the strangest thing about it, however, is that while it was invented in California, it is actually prohibited from being sold there in its original formulation due to a California Air Resources Board ruling from 2013 requiring all aerosols to contain 25 percent or less of volatile organic compounds (VOCs). That’s why some cans of WD-40 in the other 49 states are labeled with a “not for sale in California” warning.
People aren’t very happy about that, apparently. There is a version of it for sale in California that does meet the VOC threshold, though. So does that mean that the special version created for California is actually WD-41? The world may never know.
“Now I don’t have to tell you how to use WD-40—you’ve been using it for 50 years. But what I am gonna show you is some of the innovation that we’ve built into the packaging to help you use it easier. This is the can you’re most familiar with. WD-40 penetrates, lubricates, it removes moisture from surfaces, it protects surfaces.”
— Dr. Ernie Barnaducci, WD-40’s VP of Research and Development, in a 12-year old video about how to use the product. The video serves as an introduction into WD-40’s then-new packing concept of the “smart straw” can.
The mighty and mythical world of WD-40’s magical uses
As a culture, it seems one of our favorite things about WD-40 is its versatility. Indeed, the miracle spray seems to provoke the most amazing ideas for how it should be used. People from all over the world seem to have various suggested uses for it. Everything from loosening a rusty bolt to fixing a door lock to coating machinery so it isn’t squeaky. There seems to be nothing that WD-40 supposedly cannot fix. There’s even been stories about using it to help free people who had arms stuck in metal grates (although good luck finding a source for that).
But there’s also a considerable amount of mythic uses for the substance and even some suggestions that verge on parody. Outside of sensational tabloid stories about its myriad uses in tabloids, some folks really like to make up bizarre uses for it, like using it as a fishing lure (please don’t do this).
The various mythical uses for the product are so prevalent that even WD-40’s website has an entire section dedicated to the various myths and mythical uses surrounding the product. It’s worth a deep dive if you have the time.
Perhaps the pinnacle of WD-40 humor is the book The WD-40 Book by Jim and Tim, the Duct Tape Guys. Thanks to our wonderful friends at The Internet Archive, users can borrow the book for an hour at a time, reliving the glory of late 90s WD-40 jokes in real-time.
In the book, they take real user testimonials from the WD-40 brand and make their own humorous fake testimonials. Some of them are hilarious while others fall a bit flat after the passage of so much time. There are a few good zingers in the first few pages, though. For instance, the testimonial says WD-40 softens and preserves leather furniture. Jim and Tim’s riff on that one says it “makes your old vinyl car seats look like new,” followed by an amusing conversation between the two.
Some of the jokes don’t age well, but it’s still pretty funny after all this time. There are a couple of laugh out loud gags we won’t spoil for you here, but if you have an Internet Archive membership—and are a fan of WD-40—you owe it to yourself to check this silly book out.
The number of Jo Dee Messina songs users could download with the purchase of special products. In 2011, the popular country singer partnered with the brand to make certain tracks available to her fans. All you had to do was buy a specially marked WD-40 product and you could download those Jo Dee Messina songs pretty much anytime you wanted. While it’s not unusual for artists to pair up with popular brands, the pairing of WD-40 with a country artist—while it kind of makes sense given the proclivity of country songs to mention the product—is a little bit bizarre as these things tend to go. The contest ended in May of 2012, so if you’re still hoping to download those tracks, you’re only about nine years too late.
WD-40 has a surprising impact on country music
When one thinks about song lyrics involving mundane subjects, WD-40 seems like an obvious contender for funny/novelty songs. Here’s where things get a little strange: we actually found a few songs that mention WD-40. Yet, the only songs we’ve found that mention it are almost all country songs.
Apparently, mention of WD-40 makes its way into country songs a bit more often than one might expect, like in the song “WD-40” by a county group called Muscadine Bloodline. It’s probably a metaphor for togetherness and the bonds of love uniting people or whatever. Toby Keith also mentions it in his song “Made in America.” Ditto with the late Joe Diffie and one of his tracks. Often, the lyrical pairing of WD-40 and Duct Tape appear together (no, really).
Other country songs cover the subject too. Recently, there’s “WD-40 4WD (feat. Sean Stemaly, Jimmie Allen & Justin Moore)” by Hixtape. We also found a cool rock/folk/lo-fi song about it by a group called Mommy Pants:
But the closest thing to a song that’s actually about the compound in some way is Ed Perrone’s “WD-40,” which is hilarious and worth a spin or two. Of course, the best musical representation of WD-40 is probably in using the spray yourself. The unmistakable sound of the miracle compound hitting a surface and displacing all the water upon it is certainly music to our ears.
“Unlike very few things in this world, the product actually delivers far beyond the user’s expectations. That’s where the emotional attachment comes in. People start believing they can’t live without their WD-40.”
— Gerald Schleif, former CEO of the WD-40 Company, during the ceremony for the compound’s induction to the San Diego Aerospace Hall of Fame in 2014. A portrait of WD-40 hangs in the museum along with information about the product and its unique history.
One of the men who helped cement the WD-40 craze, Joseph S. Barry, passed away in 2009, leaving behind the legacy of an amazing product that lives in our cultural memory today.
Our fascination with WD-40 has never truly abated. In 2009 Wired magazine attempted to deduce the formula of WD-40, sending it to a lab for analysis. And before you ask, no, it isn’t fish oil.
Their conclusion? It was “mostly a mix of baby oil, Vaseline, and the goop inside homemade lava lamps.” It also has some decane and nonane (types of alkanes). That’s a little bit more involved than what the actual packaging will tell you, that’s for sure. But what’s in WD-40? Well, that’s a trade secret, now, isn’t it?
No matter its chemical composition or the change in its appearance over the years, One thing remains certain: WD-40 will go down in history as one of the most versatile compounds available in your workshop or garage. And in a world of tremendous uncertainty, where everything is on the verge of breaking, isn’t it nice to know you can add some lubrication to the squeaking wheels—even if it’s just for a little while?
Find this one an interesting read? Share it with a pal!
And thanks again to Newspapers.com for sponsoring—be sure to check out their Black Friday sale!