What can we learn from the success of WD-40?

18 Jan 2022 4min read

Inventor stories #1


As an Industrial Designer, I often look at products and wonder how they came to be. What was the initial spark that inspired and motivated its creators? What unmet needs does it address? What makes it unique or patentable?

To help us improve the products we develop today, it can often be useful to look back at examples of innovation and success from the past. Some time ago, as an undergraduate writing my dissertation on the relationship between war and technology, these stories began a fascination for me with seemingly everyday products which are in fact highly innovative.

Take WD-40 for example. Have you ever looked at a can of WD-40 and been utterly confused as to why a product would have a ‘name’ like that?

In the early nineteen fifties, the formula for the product that would become WD-40 had been invented by Iver Norman Lawson, who created the water-displacing mixture when working at home. Lawson turned it over to the Rocket Chemical Company, in San Diego California, for the sum of $500 (equivalent to $4,800 in 2020). As the company’s original name might suggest, this was an organisation working in the Aerospace industry, that was closely associated with rockets, or more specifically Intercontinental Ballistic Missiles. Credited with the invention of the chemical formulation of WD-40, Lawson went on to name the formula from the lab book he had used to create it, titled ‘Water Dispersal 40th formula’.

Andy Warhol WD-40

This was quite literally a story of persistence and perseverance within itself. Did Norman Lawson give up after attempt 23, 31, or 37? No. He continually iterated and refined his formulation, getting closer to the goal, until it served its intended purpose perfectly.

The first commercial use of WD-40 was to protect the outer skin of the Atlas Missile against rust and corrosion. However, in 1961 the president of the company, Norman Larsen, had the idea of packaging and selling it in aerosol cans as a commercial product. Following this, WD-40 was used by commercial airlines for cleaning turbines and handling and storing metal parts. By 1969, it was marketed to farmers and mechanics in England. It was around this time that John S. Barry changed the name of the company to the WD-40 Company. The rest, as they say, is history.

Curiously, one of the most unique and innovative aspects of WD-40 is that the formula was never patented. A patent would be time limited, and the protection patent offered was (very shrewdly) deemed weaker than no disclosure at all. For that reason, the formula of WD-40 remains an undisclosed trade secret to this day. Would-be competitors are left to guess the formulation, or reverse engineer it as best they can. Only then can they attempt to capture a segment of a market already familiar with an established and storied product in WD-40.

The intellectual property that Norman Lawson sold for $500 in 1953 now equates to a truly global company which in August 2021 had a revenue of $115 million USD according to NASDAQ.

So, what can we learn from the story of WD-40 for medical device development? Much like Iver Norman Lawson’s water-displacing mixture, medical device development is about finding innovative and cutting-edge technologies to solve real world problems. As designers and engineers, we strive to find the best solutions for the devices we work on, a process which can often lead to new discoveries and IP for our clients.

As Lawson proved, it’s important to keep iterating and improving your concepts. Your 40th attempt could well be a winner.

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