The Rocket Chemical Company
In 1903, the Wright brothers ushered in a new century of exploration with their invention of the heavier than air flying machine. Aviation inspired travel and transformed warfare. Space was the next frontier, and the research of Konstantin Tsiolkovsky in Russia, Robert Goddard in the United States and Hermann Orbeth in Germany, whose efforts were fuelled be the rivalries of the Cold War, brought this new frontier within man's reach. On October 4, 1957 the Soviet Union put the world's first man made satellite, Sputnik I, into Earth's orbit and ushered in the modern space age.
Amid the growing tension between the superpowers, the U.S Government and American industry worked together to develop technology for commercial and defence purposes. The Rocket Chemical Company was one of many businesses that contributed to this effort during the early 1950's. based in San Diego, the Company experimented with several chemical compounds that could be used to make rockets more reliable.
At that time, the first major family of launch vehicles, named atlas, was being developed by the US Air Force. The first successful flight of an atlas missile occurred in December 1957. Not long after that, the well proven atlas design was brought into NASA service. Part of the success of the atlas design can be attributed to an amazing product that was developed by the rocket chemical company for the purpose of displacing moisture and preventing rust and corrosion. The compound was so successful that it was designed to specifications for all atlas missiles, which remained in operation through the 1990's.
The Original Formula
The name 'WD-40' stands for 'Water Displacement on the Fortieth Try' that is the name straight out of the lab book that was used by the chemist who discovered the compound back in 1953. Norm Larsen was attempting to concoct a formula that could prevent rust and corrosion - a task that is accomplished by displacing water. Norm's persistence paid off when he perfected the formula on his fortieth try.
Norm and the other two employees of the Rocket Chemical Company were working on a line of industrial rust prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry when they created the secret formula of WD-40. In developing the WD -40 compound, the technicians of the Rocket Chemical Company actually invented the world's first multi-purpose problem solver. They created a solution that is a cleaning agent, lubricant, solvent, rust inhibitor, and penetrant, a true jack of all trades.
The formula worked so well, in fact, that the employees started sneaking WD-40 out of the plant to use on their own. They had discovered a variety of other applications for the product, including protecting tools, lubricating machines and loosening nuts and bolts.
A few years later, Norm Larsen experimented with putting WD-40 into aerosol cans, reasoning that consumers would want to use the product at home, just as his employees were doing. The product made its first appearance on store shelves in San Diego in 1958.
The Early Years
In no time, the Rocket Chemical Company's star product became a sensation. By the following year, the Company had nearly doubled in size, growing to seven people, who sold an average of 45 cases per day from the trunks of their cars to hardware and sporting goods stores in the San Diego area.
In 1961 the first full truckload order for WD-40 was filled when employees came in on a Saturday and worked overtime to produce additional concentrate to meet the disaster needs of the victims of hurricane Carla along the US Gulf Coast. Florida residents relied on the product to recondition vehicles and equipment that had been damaged by flood water and rain. The offshore oil industry in Texas also embraced the product to spray onto the motors in their fleets to get them up and running after being water logged.
WD-40 made the history books again in 1964, when NASA used the compound as a protective coating on the Friendship VII, the space vehicle in which astronaut John Glenn circled the Earth.
During the Vietnam war, the care packages that were sent to American troops often included cans of WD-40. 'WD-40 saved my life' wrote one G.I. gratefully. 'If I hadn't sprayed it on to lubricate my gun, I'd be dead now'
In 1969 the Rocket Chemical Company was renamed WD-40 Company after its only product, and product sales broke the $1 million mark. And in 1973, the corporation went public, still with only one brand as the source of its success. But by then the WD-40 brand has already become and American icon. Known as the 'can with a thousand uses' WD-40 actually has at least two thousand documented applications. And new ones are being discovered all the time.
Over the years the company has received thousands of letters form customers describing how this truly one of a kind product has saved their equipment, their marriage or even their life.
Given such universal appeal and avid customer loyalty, its not surprising that one million cans a week of the product are produced in the United States alone. What may come as a surprise, however, is that the successful formula that makes the product so versatile remains a closely guarded secret to this day - only a few people in the world know the actual ingredients.
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