The Invention of the Magnetic Strip on Plastic Cards

Frequently a great invention or a meaningful innovation requires input from an outsider with a new perspective. Those close to a problem, including or even especially the leading experts with years of deep experience, can easily become stuck in an intellectual rut that drives them to see the problem in their own incomplete way. Outsiders can often bring a flash of insight that can lead to the breakthrough needed.

An “outsider” can be someone outside your work group but still within the corporation, but it can also be an expert from a different company or agency. Or even someone in your family who might seem technically unqualified but may have practical insights or information from distant fields that might be exactly what is needed.

An example of the need for outside eyes is illustrated by the invention of the magnetic strip now used on credit cards and other cards and tickets globally. The story Forrest Parry is told in the Wikipedia article, “Magnetic Strip Card.”

In 1969 Forrest Parry, an IBM engineer, had the idea of securing a piece of magnetic tape, the predominant storage medium at the time, to a plastic card base. He became frustrated because every adhesive he tried produced unacceptable results. The tape strip either warped or its characteristics were affected by the adhesive, rendering the tape strip unusable. After a frustrating day in the laboratory, trying to get the right adhesive, he came home with several pieces of magnetic tape and several plastic cards. As he walked in the door at home, his wife Dorothea was ironing clothing. When he explained the source of his frustration: inability to get the tape to “stick” to the plastic in a way that would work, she suggested that he use the iron to melt the stripe on. He tried it and it worked. The heat of the iron was just high enough to bond the tape to the card.

I’ve had similar experiences when pursuing a project at doing some work at home. My wife’s input has been valuable many times. In another case, I was discussing my work on a customized security system to protect electronic accounts, when a daughter-in-law described something she wanted to see. It was actually a clever idea, in my opinion, so we began discussing how to make this work and a few months later we filed a patent.

Many inventors recognize the need for outside feedback, but many corporations do not. Potential inventors may be isolated in a group and sometimes even not allowed to discuss a project with others in the company but in different groups. Instead, corporations might wish to institute mechanisms that drive exchange between groups that ensure outside eyes with diverse skill sets have a chance to contribute or provide guidance. It will help the inventors do their work better and help others feel more valued and involved. Good for the company in many ways.

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