Verner column: Life would be creaky without WD-40

Published 12:00 am Saturday, July 25, 2009

Amid all the plaudits for newscaster Walter Cronkite, the tributes to pop star Michael Jackson, the memorials to actress Farrah Fawcett, could we have at least a squirt of appreciation for John Steven Barry, who died earlier this month at age 84?
He wasn’t a celebrity, but it’s no exaggeration to say that at one time or another, he has left his mark on most American households ó 80 percent of them, according to one survey.
Or should we say erased his mark?
Cleaning crayon markings and grease stains is just one of myriad uses for WD-40, the ubiquitous lubricant in a blue can that is a mainstay of handyman toolboxes around the world. Barry didn’t invent WD-40 ó that signal accomplishment goes to a technician named Norm Larsen ó but as president of the company first known as Rocket Chemical, Barry launched the product’s phenomenal popularity and greased the way for its growth into a multimillion-dollar conglomerate and an enduring part of America’s do-it-yourself culture.
As the name Rocket Chemical suggests, this is a tale of space-age ingenuity. Working in a San Diego lab in the early 1950s, the company’s small staff set out to develop a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for the aerospace industry. They found the right water-displacement formula on the 40th attempt ó hence the name WD-40. Although the product hit civilian-market store shelves in 1958, sales didn’t really take off until Barry became president of Rocket Chemical in 1969. He changed the company’s name to match the product and embarked on a vigorous marketing and distribution campaign that included offering free samples. At one point during the Vietnam War, the company was sending 10,000 vials per month into the jungles of Southeast Asia to help U.S. soldiers keep their weapons dry.
Yet, while a well-oiled marketing strategy might explain part of WD-40’s success, it’s the effectiveness and versatility of the product that has produced its near cultlike following. It also helped that Barry exercised fierce protection of the brand name and chemical makeup, which is cloaked in as much secrecy and legend as the formula for another American icon, Coca-Cola.
From its simple beginnings as a lubricant and water-resistant protectant, WD-40 has morphed into a product with 1,000 uses. Make that 2,000 ó and counting. That’s how many different applications have been submitted over the years to the WD-40 company, which set up a social-networking site ( to encourage its customers to share their experiences.
While you might think of WD-40 primarily in connection with rusty bolts or tar removal, a scan of the submitted uses suggests some fans may also have a few loose screws. For instance:
– Removes boa constrictor stuck in engine compartment of car.
– Rub into hands before touching (fishing) lures or bait to disguise human scent.
– Spray on watch band to keep it from pulling out arm hairs.
– Frees tongue stuck to cold metal.
– Lubricates prosthetic limbs.
And, finally, in a wonderful convergence of products with equally fanatical followings:
– Removes all traces of duct tape.
Today, WD-40 has annual sales of more than $317 million, in more than 160 countries. The official WD-40 fan club ( has well over 100,000 members. Somewhere, right now, somebody is probably Twittering about WD-40, trying to find out if it really will remove chewing gum from hair ó or a python from a Pontiac.
When death claims a Walter Cronkite or a Michael Jackson or a Farrah Fawcett we often pause to contemplate how their lives intersected our own, even though, truth be told, it was no closer a trajectory than a distant meteor whizzing past Mars. We conjure a relationship where none existed, not in any sense beyond our own one-sided imaginings. We obsess on the cultural impact of celebrities, especially entertainers, when in reality it’s the prosaic products of lesser known mortals that more directly impact our individual lives.
With no disrespect intended toward the recently departed, I can imagine life without “Thriller” or “Charley’s Angels” or “That’s the way it is.” But life without paper clips or Kleenex? Without staples or safety pins? Without Post-It notes or pop-top cans?
Life without WD-40, the home-repair kit in a can, equally suitable for dispensing with corroded connections or recalcitrant reptiles? The mind balks like a rusty hinge.
Passing away among a parade of luminaries, John Steven Barry’s death went largely unnoticed. There was no public outpouring of testimonials, no statement from the president. You might say Barry’s death attracted barely a squeak of attention.
And that was probably just as he would have wanted it.
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Chris Verner is editorial page editor of the Salisbury Post.