When chemist Harry Coover tried to create clear plastic precision pistol sights to help soldiers aim during World War II, the result was the invention of an incredibly effective glue. It was too sticky to use for sights, but it became what we know today as super glue.
The Frisbie Pie Company also used a pie pan that inspired frisbee. The Wham-O toy company realized that people recreationally toss the pie pan back and forth. So, in the 1950s, they created plastic discs known as frisbees.
These are not the only inventions used for different purposes, and there are some with strange beginnings.
1. Bubble wrap
In the late 1950s, two engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavan, were on a mission to make 3D wallpaper which would have air bubbles between two layers of plastic. Not surprisingly, it wasn’t a hit. But they didn’t give up. Instead, they patented it and invented other uses for their creation. They tried to sell it as insulation for greenhouses, but that didn’t work either.
Once they realized it would make good packaging material, they knew they were on to something. Theirs the first major client was IBM, who used Bubble Wrap to ship their computers. After that, Bubble Wrap became ubiquitous as a protective packaging material. Over time, the company has developed a variety of strengths, shapes and sizes of Bubble Wrap.
Warning: This may be a bit disturbing. Before C-sections became common medical practice, doctors handled difficult births differently. They performed a symphysiotomy — a surgical procedure that widens the pelvis by cutting ligaments and often bone. It was a long and difficult process for the doctors.
In 1780, two doctors, John Aitken and James Jaffrey, created a solution: the chainsaw. This is not the chainsaw we think of today, but a smaller version that includes teeth on a hand-driven chain. The invention made life easier for doctors, but it was brutal for the women it was used on, as was the symphysiotomy done with knives before the chainsaw. The first patent was issued in 1905 for an electric chainsaw for cutting trees.
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Although British physician Joseph Lister is considered the father of antiseptic surgery, he did not invent Listerine. However, it was named after him by his inventor, chemist Joseph Lawrence.
Developed in 1879 as a surgical antiseptic, Listerine is marketed for a variety of purposes. When a pharmacist Jordan Whit Lambert licensed the product in 1881, he saw the sales potential in promoting it for other purposes. Listerine was soon sold to dentists for oral care. It is also used as an (ineffective) treatment for gonorrhea and a floor cleaner. And in 1914, Listerine became the first over-the-counter mouthwash in the United States
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During World War II, engineer Richard James tried to design a new tension spring which could provide the electronic equipment for US Navy ships. While doing this, he dropped the spring he was working on and it “walked” across the floor. Although the spring did not work as intended, James realized that it might be a toy.
After experimentation, James arrived at his final product, made of 80 feet of coiled steel wire. James and his wife, Betty, took out a $500 loan and started their company. Betty checked the dictionary for a word that would fit their new invention. When he finds the definition of “clingy”: “elegant and sinuous in motion or outline,” the toy had a name and started hitting toy shelves in 1945.
Before treadmills became popular exercise machines, prisons used them to punish inmates. Civil engineer William Cubitt invented an early treadmill device for Brixton Gaol in London. Up to 40 prisoners at a time were forced to spend hours pushing steps built into a large, wide wheel.
As they stepped, the wheel turned and grind corn or pump water. Britain passed the Prisons Act in 1898, which ended the use of treadmills in correctional facilities. In 1913, the first patent was made for the treadmill as an exercise machine.