The saga of WD-40


For as long as I can remember, we’ve had WD-40 around our house, and I’m quite sure I’m not alone in that experience: most houses contain a can somewhere. But I’d never really thought about it, or even why it was called what it’s called, until this week, when I read the New York Times’s obituary of John S. Barry.

No, Barry didn’t invent WD-40, but he was the executive who was the brains behind its ascent up the slippery slope of lubricant supremacy, to the point where the WD-40 company says its surveys show it can be found in as many as 80 percent of American homes.

Barry, who died on July 3 in California at the age of 84, wasn’t there at the genesis of the product, which came in 1953.

That was when the three staff members of the fledgling Rocket Chemical Company began their quest to develop a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for the burgeoning aerospace industry.

They weren’t immediately successful. In fact, it took them 40 attempts to come up with a water displacement formula that really worked. But WD-40—water displacement formula 40—really, really worked. And the formula developed by Rocket Chemical Company technician Norm Larsen (top-secret to this day and never patented so details of its composition don’t have to be made public) still really, really works. Its uses, however, have expanded far beyond the one the company’s first customer, Convair, a unit of General Dynamics, bought the stuff for.

Convair spread WD-40 on the outer skin of Atlas missiles to prevent corrosion. It worked so well that Convair employees began sneaking cans of the stuff out of the plant to use at home. Seeing the potential, Norm Larsen came up with the idea of selling it to the public.

WD-40 hit store shelves in San Diego in 1958, the year before I was born (which is why, for me, it’s always been around). In 1961, employees of the company produced the first truckload shipment of WD-40 to send off to the Gulf Coast to help recondition vehicles damaged by the flooding caused by Hurricane Carla.

But it wasn’t until the arrival of Barry, who took over as president and chief executive in 1969, that WD-40 really took off in the public consciousness. The first thing he did was change the company’s name from Rocket Chemical to the WD-40 Company, pointing out that it did not make rockets (who could argue with that?).

Barry updated the packaging, increased advertising, and pushed for wider distribution, offering free samples wherever he thought it would do some good. (For example, the company sent 10,000 cans a month to soldiers in Vietnam to keep their weapons dry.)

In a little over ten years, Barry had WD-40 being sold by 14,000 wholesalers, more than ten times as many as when he started. He got it into supermarkets, where people might pick it up on impulse. He sold it overseas.

He also started something that the company still encourages: he urged users to report their own unique uses for the product, which to date has produced more than 2,000 possible uses. As Douglas Martin, author of the Times obituary, notes, “The uses included preventing squirrels from climbing into a birdhouse; lubricating tuba valves; cleaning ostrich eggs for craft purposes; and freeing a tongue stuck to cold metal. A bus driver in Asia used WD-40 to remove a python that had coiled itself around the undercarriage of his bus.”

Just how popular is WD-40?

According to the company website, the WD-40 fan club now has more than 100,000 members. The number of members isn’t nearly as impressive as the mere fact that this secret concoction of mineral oils, petroleum distillates—and almost no-one knows what else—has its own fan club. How many lubricants can say that?

The company does make a point of downplaying some myths about WD-40, such as the notion that it cures arthritis. However, it can be—and has been!–used to free naked burglars trapped in air conditioning vents.

If that’s not a good enough reason to keep a can handy, I don’t know what is.

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