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The Life of John Johnston: A Story Worth Sticking To

(La Porte County, IN) - There was a memorial service this weekend for a little-known La Porte County inventor with a remarkable claim to fame. 


Michigan City’s John Johnston, co-inventor of duct tape, has passed away.  “He was probably the smartest guy I ever knew,” said his son Dr. Ian Johnston, who recounted his father’s incredible life.


Born in England, John Johnston worked with radar for the Royal Air Force during WWII.  According to son Ian, at that time, radar was a new technology and very top-secret.  In fact, after his training, Johnston was required to burn his notes.  After the war, Johnston began his career in adhesives with a company in Hull, England.


His prowess caught the attention of none other than Dr. William Scholl, who recruited Johnston to his new company, Arno Tapes in Michigan City.  According to Johnston’s son, they came to America with Scholl’s help.  “In 1959 to come to this country,” he said, “you had to have a sponsor, and so our sponsor was Dr. Scholl.”


Johnston spent the better part of seventy years researching and developing adhesive tapes, finally retiring only a year ago due to failing eyesight. A prolific researcher, Johnston at one point developed eighteen new tape products in eighteen months.


His crowning achievement, of course, was that silvery miracle that keeps everything together. Even though previous versions of the sticky-strong tape already existed, the one that stuck came from La Porte County.  “The duct tape we know today,” said Johnston’s son Ian, “was developed at Arno Tapes in Michigan City.  It was a small team, and they have the patent. I’ve seen the patent; he has it in his files.”


During his career, Johnston literally wrote the textbook on adhesive tapes; he toured the world teaching and consulting; he helped the National Archives with documents damaged by tape residue; he even lectured at the FBI Academy and helped them solve cases with his expertise.

Ian recalled a time his father was contacted by the FBI about a crime involving a piece of tape. With only some basic specifications, Johnston was able to identify the brand off the top of his head. He also caught a measurement error without even seeing the evidence. “That’s an example,” Ian said, “of what kind of mind he had.”


According to Ian, his dad recited large chunks of poetry that he had learned as a boy. He was also quite an artist, decorating his kids’ bedrooms with pictures of Disney characters that he drew himself.


Johnston spent nearly twenty years in Michigan City before moving to North Carolina, where he passed away last week.  Cutler Funeral Home hosted a memorial service for John Johnston on Saturday. Fortunately, his great invention lives on.


Special thanks to Dr. Ian Johnston for a gracious interview and credit to him for details from his father's obituary.

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