It's too easy to make duct tape a punch line. After seeing the cobbled-together wallets, hammocks, prom dresses, and baby care contraptions on umpteen websites, some people might underestimate just what a significant contribution to civilization duct tape has made.

Admittedly, these contributions are mostly short-term fixes, but the sheer abundance of uses -- from makeshift bandage to astronaut savior and a million things in between -- puts duct tape up there as one of man's great inventions. Well, woman's, to be exact.

The official story is that a Johnson & Johnson division created an adhesive tape backed with cotton duck -- a kind of canvas -- at the time of the second World War. It was made to provide a waterproof seal for ammunition boxes. This "water off a duck's back" angle and the material used resulted in the name "duck tape." But the original idea came from Vesta Stoudt, a mother of two sons serving in the Navy.

Mrs. Stoudt worked at the Green River Ordnance Plant munitions factory in Illinois. Her job was to pack cartridges used to launch rifle grenades, 11 per box, then close the boxes with thin paper tape, with a tab left loose to pull for opening. But the tabs would rip off, leaving soldiers to tear at the boxes any way they could, usually with enemy gunfire all around them. And the paper tape proved not up to the task, either.

So this concerned parent became a mother of invention. Stoudt suggested to her supervisors that a strong, waterproof, cloth-backed tape be used instead. They did nothing with the idea, but Stoudt was undeterred. On February 10, 1943, she wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt, saying, "I have two sons out there somewhere, one in the Pacific, the other one with the Atlantic fleet. You have sons in the service also. We can't let them down by giving them a box of cartridges that takes a minute or more to open." She included a diagram explaining the whole concept. By March, she had received a reply from the War Production Board saying her idea was "of exceptional merit."

Soldiers also found exceptional merit in duck tape as a fix for guns, aircraft, bodies, Jeeps, and anything else that was a casualty of war. When those soldiers came home, got married, and worked on their own houses, they found plenty of peacetime uses for the stuff, too. One was a way to connect and seal air conditioning and heating ducts. Hence the name "duct tape." This coincided with the tape changing color availability from Army-issue olive drab to shiny silver. Now it comes in many colors.

Ironically, using duct tape to tape up ducts is not a very good idea. It can't handle the extremes of temperature, and building codes in various states prohibit its use in this context.

Silver looks undoubtedly space-age, though. And it seems that, wherever man goes, he takes a roll of duct tape with him -- even on a trip to the moon. When one of Apollo 13's oxygen tanks exploded, the situation looked bleak for astronauts Jim Lovell, Jack Swigert, and Fred Haise, especially when the carbon dioxide they exhaled could not be processed. They needed a method to connect the command module's square-shaped filters with the lunar module's round holders.

Amid all that rocket science, duct tape was a frequent space-traveling companion, used to clean filters and several other tasks. Once Robert "Ed" Smylie, head of the crew systems division, found out there was a roll on board, he said, "I felt like we were home free. One thing a Southern boy will never say is, 'I don't think duct tape will fix it.'"

Using plastic bags (intended for holding moon rocks), cardboard torn from manuals, various other bits and pieces, and of course the duct tape, the crew fashioned a fix. It resulted in the ground staff receiving the first-ever Great Moments in Engineering award. No doubt Mrs. Stoudt would have been pleased to know that she helped someone's three sons come home safely.