It was discovered during World War II when searching for a way to make synthetic gun-sights (a substitute for spidersilk). Cyanoacrylate was not the answer, since it stuck to all the apparatus used to handle it. Later it was developed into a more useful form by the Eastman Kodak company in 1958. The term is now used to refer to a range of adhesives based on similar chemistry.
In its liquid form, cyanoacrylate consists of monomers of cyanoacrylate molecules, (C5H5NO2) an acrylic resin which rapidly polymerisess in the presence of water, forming long, strong chains, joining the bonded surfaces together. During setting, it exudes concentrated acetic acid, making a strong smell of vinegar.
Cyanoacrylate is a tenacious adhesive, particularly when used to bond non-porous materials or those that contain minute traces of water. As such it is very good at bonding body tissue, and while this effect can be a nuisance (or even dangerous) for everyday use, it has been exploited for the benefit of suture-less surgery. Its major polymerization byproduct, acetic acid, (commonly known as vinegar) is biocompatible.
Another important trait is that cyanoacryate sets up fast, often in less than a minute. A normal bond reaches full strength in two hours, and is waterproof. There are also accelerants that can force a set-up as fast as two or three seconds, at some loss of strength.
Cyanoacrylates are used in orthopedic surgery to glue metal appliances to bone. They are often used, for example, to glue artificial hip appliances to femurs and pelvic girdles.
Cyanoacrylates are used in forensic science for fingerprint detection. The liquid glue is vaporised and the vapour passed over the object suspected of having fingerprints. The minute traces of water in the print cause the polymerisation of the vapour, which sets hard, forming a solid version of the print, which is rendered very much more visible and much more robust.