5 inventions with surprising (and disturbing) origins
When chemist Harry Coover tried to create precision in clear plastic gun sights to help soldiers aim during World War II, the result was the invention of an incredibly effective adhesive. It was too sticky to be used for gun sights, but became what we know today as super glue.
The Frisbie Pie Company also used a pie pan that inspired the frisbee. Toy company Wham-O has acknowledged that people throw the pie pan recreationally. So, in the 1950s, they created plastic discs called frisbees.
These aren’t the only inventions used for different purposes, and some have strange beginnings.
1. Bubble wrap
At the end of the 1950s, two engineers, Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes, were on a mission to make 3D wallpaper which would have air bubbles between two layers of plastic. Unsurprisingly, it was not a success. But they didn’t give up. Instead, they patented it and thought of other uses for their creation. They tried to sell it as greenhouse insulation, but that didn’t work either.
After realizing that it would make great wrapping material, they knew they were onto something. Their the first big customer was IBM, which used Bubble Wrap to ship their computers. After that, Bubble Wrap became ubiquitous as a protective material for packaging. Over time, the company has developed a variety of resistances, shapes and sizes of bubble wrap.
Warning: This can be a little disturbing. Before caesarean section became an accepted medical practice, doctors treated difficult deliveries differently. They performed a symphysiotomy — surgery that widened the pelvis by cutting ligaments and often bones. It was a long and demanding process for the doctors.
In the 1780s, two doctors, John Aitken and James Jaffray found a solution: the chainsaw. It’s not the chainsaw we’re thinking of today, but a smaller version that included teeth on a crank chain. The invention made life easier for doctors but was brutal for the women it was intended for, just like the symphysiotomy performed with a knife in front of 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 for him by its inventor, the chemist Joseph Lawrence.
Developed in 1879 as a surgical antiseptic, Listerine is sold for a variety of purposes. When the pharmacist Jordan Blé Lambert authorized the product in 1881, he saw the sales potential of promoting it for other uses. Soon, Listerine was being sold to dentists for oral care. It has also been used as a (not effective) treatment for gonorrhea and as a floor cleaner. And in 1914, Listerine became the first prescription mouthwash to be sold without a prescription in the United States.
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During World War II, engineer Richard James tried to design a new tension spring that could secure the electronic equipment of US Navy ships. In doing so, he dropped the spring he was working on and he “stepped” on the ground. Although the spring did not work for its intended purpose, James realized that it could be a toy.
After experimentation, James reached his final product, consisting of 80 feet of coiled steel wire. James and his wife Betty took out a $500 loan and started their business. Betty looked in the dictionary for a word that would correspond to their new invention. When she found the definition of “slinky”: “elegant and sinuous in movement or outline,” the toy had a name and started hitting toy shelves in 1945.
Before treadmills became popular training machines, prisons used them to punish prisoners. Civil engineer William Cubitt invented a first treadmill for Brixton prison in London. Up to 40 inmates at a time were forced to spend hours pressing on steps embedded in a wide Ferris wheel.
As they walked, 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 filed for the treadmill as an exercise machine.