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WD-40 - Icon

Colin Ryan
Oct 17, 2011 SHARE

Chances are a lot of people owe their very existence to WD-40. Maybe their future father sprayed the stuff on his damp engine so he could get the car started to make that date with the hot chick who became their future mother. Or perhaps because it was developed to inhibit corrosion of intercontinental ballistic missiles, which kept the West safe during the Cold War.

The Rocket Chemical Company of San Diego, California, formulated its famous product in 1953 for the Atlas ICBM, the first American missile that could launch a nuclear warhead to anywhere in the world. The origin of the name is fairly common knowledge: This was the 40th attempt at making a water dispersant. What is far less well known is the secret blend of constituents in this easily recognizable yellow-and-blue container with the red cap.

Some people have run laboratory tests to get an idea. Given the list of obscure ingredients detected, it was quite a feat to create something workable after only 40 tries. It might as easily have been called WD-237. For example, one component is undecane, an alkane (or hydrocarbon) that occurs naturally in cockroach pheromones. Really. The basis of the formulation (about 50 percent), however, is good old-fashioned mineral oil, close relation to Vaseline and baby oil.

There are some elements that have a fishy smell, leading many people to jump to the erroneous conclusion that WD-40 contains fish oil, which in turn leads people to use the stuff for all sorts of tasks it was not designed for. Some folks rub it into their joints, claiming it’s good for their arthritis. Others spray a little on a fishing lure to attract a few more bites, which is probably not a good thing for the environment of the lake or river. Someone allegedly used it to polish the fruit on their dining room table. The company does not recommend doing any of these things, and neither would anyone else with a modicum of intelligence.

Apart from silencing squeaky hinges, freeing stuck nuts and bolts or eliminating road tar from cars, WD-40 has earned its rightful place in the garage or shed or under the sink by being an excellent crayon remover, pigeon repellent (they hate the smell, apparently) and prosthetic limb lubricant. It will also clean off the residue from duct tape, splattered bugs from cars, and lipstick from collars or anywhere else. Fans have found more than 2,000 uses for WD-40 that range from the mundane to the weird. Like shifting a python from the undercarriage of a bus, or extracting a naked burglar from an air conditioning vent (see above about stuck nuts).

The man behind the can is Norman B. Larsen, a self-taught chemist from Chicago. He was the one who developed the recipe. After noticing that employees of the Rocket Chemical Company’s aerospace contractor, Convair, were smuggling the stuff off the premises to use at home, Larsen reasoned that the public at large would also appreciate it. The first aerosol dispenser went onto store shelves in 1958.

The actual business operation, which changed its name to the WD-40 Company Inc. in 1969, was run by midwesterner John S. Barry. By resisting all attempts to diversify, make mergers or acquisitions, thereby breaking all the rules of the Harvard Business School, Barry concentrated on the one thing and grew it into a multimillion dollar concern. “When you have a good product, don’t tinker with it,” he said. “Don’t be like a blind dog in a meat house.” WD-40 now sells in 160 countries and brings in more than $200 million a year. There are cans in 80 percent of American households. During the Vietnam conflict, Barry sent more than 10,000 cans a month so the troops could keep their guns dry.

WD-40 has earned its rightful place in the garage or shed or under the sink by being an excellent crayon remover, pigeon repellant and prosthetic limb lubricant.

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By Colin Ryan
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