Rest in Peace

Harry Heltzer, an innovator who began work at 3M as a laborer and rose to serve as its CEO died last week. The inventor of a new way to make reflective signs and highway markings, Heltzer’s innovation story is worth considering for a moment.

In 1937, he was assigned to a project to make the center striping on highways more reflective at night than was possible with the standard white or yellow paint. A Minnesota highway official had suggested painting glass beads onto the stripe.

The first problem Mr. Heltzer encountered was a lack of glass beads small enough to use. He proceeded to make his own, often through novel methods. One was to drop molten glass from his window.

He finally fashioned an acceptable double-coated tape with beads on one side, but he could not make it stick to the road during a Minnesota winter. So he used the process he developed to make a material for signs, which was sold as Scotchlite reflective sheeting.

Later he developed a glass-bead reflective compound for highway striping that would stick to the road’s surface. He was awarded six patents for reflective highway products.

The next time you develop a solution to a challenge, ask yourself the following question: Will it stick to the road during a Minnesota winter? I love that phrase.