Hey, guys, it's Mike Rowe, and this is the way I heard it, the only podcast for The Curious Mind with a short attention span. This is episode number 171. It is called. He really stuck with it.
He really stuck with it.
Talking to you today from my hotel room here in my hometown, Baltimore, Maryland, where I have scrambled the troops. The returning the favor gang have emerged from their cocoons and layers and met me back here to shine our little spotlight on some lingering vestiges of do gooders. It's great to be back out in the world with the gang. Got to see my folks a little bit later today, I hope. And gosh, I haven't seen them since since Christmas.
Anyway, it's great to be out and about sitting here watching the sailboats come and go through Baltimore's Inner Harbor. Many of those captains on many of those boats, I imagine, have charted their course. Will they stay the course? Well, that's the question that inspired the story you're about to hear, because success is often explained by the people who enjoy it as a result of persistence. But staying the course only makes sense if you're going in the right direction.
Now, how do you know if you're going in the right direction before you've gotten to the place where you think you want to be? Well, I don't know. That's one of the great challenges of life, I suppose. And different people arrive at different conclusions at various stages of their journey.
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On a warm summer evening in San Diego, California, way back in 1953, Norman Lawson wrestled to find a new solution for an old problem, a problem that had plagued the United States Navy for years. A loyal employee of the rocket chemical company, Norman laboured after hours in a lab he built above his garage, surrounded by concoctions and mixtures that bubbled and fizzled as his dinner grew cold. Once again, it had been like this for the last several months.
Norman locked away in his lab as his family slowly began to wonder if he would ever emerge for something more than cold leftovers. So far, 11 experiments had been conducted, but all had come up short. Norman's failures, however, only deepened his resolve to find the right ingredients for an elusive solution. And tonight he was experimenting with mineral oil, paraffin and carbon tetrachloride, otherwise known as the goop inside of a lava lamp, which he had added to a beaker of petroleum with the unflagging confidence of a true optimist only to get another negative result.
Dammit. Norm went back to work as his wife called him to dinner for the third and final time 20 years later, more or less on a warm summer evening in downtown Denver, a concerned citizen out for a late night stroll heard muffled cries coming from the inside of a bank. The concerned citizen called the police. And moments later, Officer Macourt arrived on the scene. A veteran of some experience, Officer Macourt followed the sounds of distress to the back of the building, specifically to an air vent leading into the bank.
A closer investigation revealed a naked burglar jammed inside.
Thank God you're here, Officer. I admit it. I was trying to break into the bank and now I'm absolutely stuck. Please, can you get me out? Officer Macourt attempted to pull the naked burglar out by his legs, this attempt failed.
He then tried to push him forward, but that attempt also failed. He might as well have tried to thread a needle with a sausage. So Officer Macourt called for backup, and soon several firemen entered the bank and attempted to pull the naked burglar out by his arms. But that only seemed to wedge him deeper into the bend of the ductwork. We're going to have to cut him out, said one of the firemen. I'll get the hacksaws, said another.
God help me, said the naked burglar. Twenty years earlier, more or less in the lab above his garage in San Diego, California, Norman Lawson was still experimenting as another family dinner was consumed without him. You'll recall that his 12th attempt, the one that incorporated the goop from lava lamps, had failed. Well, so, too, had the 13th, 14th, 15th, 16th and the next 10 attempts after that. Now, he was about to begin his twenty seventh experiment and feeling very optimistic about the addition of an alkaline found in the scent gland of the red banded stinkbug, along with a shot of baby oil and a sprinkling of Alphatech Hydrocarbon.
Surely, muttered Norman, this will do the trick. Well, the twenty seventh experiment failed, as did the twenty eighth and the twenty ninth.
Norm wandered downstairs to cold spaghetti and meatballs, vowing, as he always did, to crack the code the next day. But the next day was no different. Nor was the day after that, or the day after that. Or the day after that. Over the next month, another ten experiments would be carefully conducted and another ten failures would be dutifully logged. Until finally, Naum conducted his thirty ninth attempt by adding to his naphtha based compound a pinch of fish oil, a dollop of Vaseline and a dash of silicone.
The result complete and total failure. Twenty years later, more or less a team of Denver firemen armed with hacksaws began the delicate process of cutting a naked burglar out of a metal air vent, a procedure that caused the naked burglar no small amount of consternation. Officer McCourt's flashlight danced off the man's alabaster buttocks, which now glistened with sweat as the saw blades passed within millimetres of his tender flesh. Hang on, fellows, said Officer Macourt. I've got something in my trunk that I think might help get it, said the burglar.
Whatever it is, get it. I'm not going anywhere.
Twenty years earlier, more or less immediately following his thirty ninth failure, Norman Lawson finally stumbled across the ingredient that led to a brand new solution to a very old problem.
A lot of problems, in fact, for his persistence and ingenuity.
The rocket chemical company awarded him a five hundred dollar bonus and went on to market his solution not just to the U.S. Navy, but to housewives who used it to remove gum from carpeting and husbands who used it to remove telltale lipstick from shirt collars and once to a bus driver in Southeast Asia who used it to remove a 20 foot python from the undercarriage of his vehicle.
What was the secret ingredient that turned Norman's compound into a billion dollar all purpose solution? No one knows. The recipe is locked away in a vault somewhere in California, but the product is pretty much everywhere, more ubiquitous than the iPad, more popular than Netflix, and according to many, more useful than both.
Just ask Officer Macourt, who retrieved from his trunk a blue and yellow can a can filled with Norm Lawson's solution, a solution designed to combat rust and corrosion aboard Navy ships that also just happen to work great on henges, sticky drawers, dirty guitar strings, tangled jewelry, sputtering showerheads and pretty much anything else that might benefit from a little lubrication, including a naked burglar stuck inside an air vent of the Denver bank he was attempting to rob on a warm summer evening in the summer of nineteen seventy three, more or less thus, Officer Macourt going far above and beyond the call of duty, bravely crawled into that air vent and slathered a burglar's bottom with Norman Lawson's all purpose solution before extracting him unscathed from his temporary prison and into a more permanent one where he would spend the next five years for attempted robbery.
Just one of many happy endings made possible by Norman Lawson's final attempt to invent a revolutionary water displacement compound.
The fortieth attempt, in fact, that resulted in a lubricant for just about everything a water displacing lubricant he called WD 40. Anyway, that's the way I heard it.