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Primary Magazine - Issue 60: A little bit of history

This page has been archived. The content was correct at the time of original publication, but is no longer updated.
Created on 23 January 2014 by ncetm_administrator


Primary Magazine Issue 60Glue (adapted) by Jennifer Feuchter, some rights reserved

A little bit of history - adhesives

Glue sticks, sticky tape: we all use them from time to time, children too. So in the penultimate article in our series of classroom equipment we look at adhesives of which these are two.

One dictionary definition for adhesive is ‘a substance capable of holding materials together by surface attachment.’ Such a simple definition for a multi-million pound grossing product!

Glue was first used many thousands of years ago. It was made from natural materials such as beeswax, egg whites, bark, tar, blood, bones, hide, milk, cheese, vegetables and grains. Earliest findings date back to hunters joining feathers to their arrows, using beeswax, in order to improve their aim when trying to catch animals for their food.

Here are some other examples of archaeologists’ discoveries of the early uses of adhesives:

  • broken clay pots repaired with resin were found at a burial site thought to date back about 6000 years.
  • statues from Babylonian temples were found with ivory eyeballs glued into eye sockets.
  • carvings in Thebes from around 1300BC show a glue pot and brush being used to bond a veneer to a plank of sycamore.
  • a casket removed from the tomb of King Tutankhamun shows the use of glue in its construction.
  • our museums today contain many art objects and furnishings from the tombs of Egyptian Pharaohs that are bonded or laminated with some type of animal glue.
  • from 1 – 500 AD, the Romans and Greeks developed the art of veneering and marquetry, which is the bonding of thin sections or layers of wood.

The development of modern adhesives began in 1690 with the founding of the first commercial glue plant in Holland. These glues were produced from animal hides. In 1750 the first British glue patent was issued for fish glue. Apparently variations on these were developed over the following decades.

In 1839, Charles Goodyear (of tyre fame) discovered that a mixture of rubber and sulphur became elastic when heated. This discovery was developed and eventually used, in 1927, to produce a solvent to bond metal and rubber.

In the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s due to the World Wars there were great advances in the development and production of new plastics and resins. Synthetic adhesives began to replace many of the natural substances owing to their stronger adhesion. However some of the natural ways to stick things together continued to be widely used and still are today, including naturally occurring asphalt materials.


Sellotape began as a British brand of transparent, pressure-sensitive adhesive tape, used for joining, sealing, attaching and mending things. It became the leading brand of tape in the UK and so well known that the word Sellotape is now a commonly-used generic name for any clear form of sticky tape.

Sellotape is sold to many countries around the world, for example, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Japan, Greece, Zimbabwe and Bosnia.

The tape was originally manufactured in 1937 by Colin Kinninmonth and George Gray, in West London. It proved to be the right product at the right time. Two years after it was first produced, during the war, it was used for sealing ammunition boxes and taping up windows to minimise potential bomb damage. It was a sad use of the product in those days but these days it has more positive associations, particularly as a key component in present wrapping!

From the 1960s to 1980s, the Sellotape Company was part of a British packaging and paper conglomerate. In 2002, it was sold to a German company. The company was warned that whatever they might change in the product they mustn’t tamper with the name! Apparently it has cultivated an ‘affectionate image due to childhood memories’.

Although adhesives have been around for about 6000 years, most of the technology of adhesives has been developed over the last 100 years.

Information sourced from:

Now for some mathematics...

You could collect all the glue sticks and rolls of sticky tape in the classroom and count how many there are altogether. How many more of one type are there than the other? Choose either type of adhesive and compare their sizes, for example heights, diameters. Next repeat this for the other type.

You could ask the children to look online for the different prices of each product. They could order these on a number line and then compare prices of different brands.

You could ask the children to solve and make up problems: for example, a box of 25 glue sticks costs £40.75. How much does each glue stick cost? You could give the price of one, for example, £4.05, and ask the children to work out if it is cheaper to buy in bulk and if so, by how much.

You could make up a scenario such as, Mr Stick needs to order tape for each class in the school. There are 14 classes altogether. He will order each class 12 rolls. Each pack that he wants to order contains 15 rolls and costs £36.50. How many packs does he need to buy and how much will it cost?

What 3-D shapes are glue sticks and rolls of sticky tape? You could carry out a shape activity with plasticine where the children make a sphere, describe its properties and discuss where it can be found in real life. They then flatten their sphere to make faces and create a cube. Again they describe its properties and where they would be seen in real life. Repeat this for a cuboid and then a cylinder.

Can they identify which of the shapes they made are the same as the sticky tape and glue stick? You could ask them to explore nets of these shapes. Can they make a cylinder? Once they have, you could ask them to make cuboid shaped packing boxes to put these into. What would be the best size for one cylinder? What about 10, etc.?

Jewellery material 61

You could use the rolls and sticks to explore circles. Ask the children to draw around them to create circles. They could then measure their diameters and compare sizes. They could measure these in centimetres and millimetres (e.g. 3cm 5 mm) and then convert to millimetres (35mm) and then to centimetre measurements (3.5cm). They could also convert these to imperial measurements.

You could ask the children to use a strip of paper and tear it to the size of the circumference of a roll of sticky tape. They could then explore the relationship between this and the diameter of the roll. By folding the strip they should be able to find that circumference is just over 3 times the diameter. They could measure each to the nearest centimetre and check by multiplying the length of the diameter by three.

You could give the children investigations such as Overlapping Circles, Change Around, or Intersecting Circles (all from NRICH).

You could ask the children to make repeating patterns using the circle shapes that can be made by either or both.

You could ask the children to explore the Sellotape Company website and make a table of the products they produce. They could then find prices for these items online and add these to their table.

The children could also explore the time line on the website and make up their own with dates and interesting facts. They could then work out the differences between these dates and make up problems for a friend to solve.

The children could make a list of the different makes of glue sticks that are in the classroom, then find out their prices and compare them.

Sellotape comes in two main sizes: 24mm x 50m and 16mm x 33m. Ask the children to draw lengths on paper to show their widths. Using a metre stick can they visualise how long 50m and 33m are? They could explore how many times around the playground, classroom or field the lengths of Sellotape would go. You could give them the dimensions of each so that they can try to calculate this using a mental calculation strategy. Alternatively, let them practically try this out with a trundle wheel.

We often use sticky tape to make up or secure boxes. You could ask the children how they could secure a box without sticky tape - or glue or string! Let them experiment by making nets of cubes and adding tabs to over- or under-lap. They then cut them out and fold them to see which tabs can be successfully used.

We hope that this article has inspired you to make a mathematical use of your classroom glue sticks and sticky tape! If there is any area of history that you would like us to make mathematical links to, please let us know.

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Explore further!
If you've enjoyed this article, don't forget you can find all previous A little bit of history features in our archive, sorted into categories: Ancient Number Systems, History of our measurements, Famous mathematicians, and Topical history.

Image Credits
Page header (adapted) by Jennifer Feuchtersome rights reserved
Tape by Steven Lilley, some rights reserved
Jewellery material 61 (adapted) by Mauro Cateb, some rights reserved

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