Products Originally Intended For Very Different Purposes
Lots of products and objects you currently use were invented for strange reasons. Lets find out the crazy origin stories of common products!Knowledge
Some products need time to find their true calling. Surprisingly, this is true even for some of the biggest brands in the world, that produce products that seem to have been the same forever. From bubble wrap to 7-Up, let's explore some everyday products originally intended for very different purposes!
In World War II, the Axis powers invaded most of the countries that sourced America’s rubber. This left the USA with a shortage of tires, gas masks, boots, and ducks to play with in the bathtub.
To counteract this, the US government started researching synthetic rubber compounds. By combining boric acid with silicone oil, researchers created something that bounced like rubber but had an annoying tendency to melt into a puddle when not used.
Needless to say, this was useless as a rubber substitute. After all, you can’t drive a car with melting tires into battle. But its inventors foresaw a different purpose. Their vision was shared by the owner of the first toy store to stock it, as well as marketer Peter Hodgson, who gave the substance its name: silly putty.
Through the 40s and 50s, the substance bounced and stretched its way into the children’s toy we all know today, making Hodgson a millionaire along the way. It even found its way on board the Apollo 8 space mission, where it kept astronauts entertained and prevented tools from floating around in the cabin.
It’s up for debate as to who the original inventor of silly putty was, but within four years of each other, both Earl Warrick and James Wright had filed patents for a very similar product. Though the case was never closed, there’s really only one way to settle such a dispute: silly putty fight!
In 1865, the English doctor Joseph Lister revolutionized modern medicine. He discovered that, by using carbolic acid on surgical dressings, you could significantly decrease the risk of infection. Lister’s work inspired St. Louis doctor Joseph Lawrence to create a new, alcohol-based antiseptic designed for general use in killing germs.
Lawrence named this new antiseptic Listerine, in honor of Joseph Lister. Listerine would go on to be sold, in a distilled form, as everything from a floor cleaner to a cure for gonorrhea. In the 1890s, the product became popular with dentists, and finally became the first over-the-counter mouthwash to be sold in the US, in 1914.
It secured its identity in the 1920s when the company started marketing it as the cure to chronic halitosis (a.k.a. bad breath). Their ads featured attractive young people who were unable to find love due to their stank breath; a problem Listerine promised to solve.
This ad campaign was a huge success, and Listerine's revenue skyrocketed from $115,000 to more than $8 million in just seven years. And yet, somehow, the coffee-breath epidemic continues.
In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at manufacturing company 3M, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Along the way to this goal, he inadvertently created a weak adhesive that was reusable and pressure-sensitive. He knew there had to be some incredible use for this unusual substance but wasn’t sure what.
For years, he promoted his so-called “solution without a problem” but couldn’t find anyone to develop the idea. Frankly, many viewed an adhesive that was super easy to remove as essentially useless. But in 1974, a colleague of Silver’s started using the adhesive to attach a bookmark to his hymn book.
Out of this seemingly-arbitrary development, the post-it note was born. The distinctive yellow color was in fact an accident. When the Post-It development team borrowed some scrap paper to test from the lab next door, yellow was the only color available.
The iconic yellow stuck, however, and the product launched as the “Press ‘n Peel bookmark” in 1977. The results were disappointing, so they changed the name to “Post-Its”, opening up a more generic purpose for their product. This revamp caught on, spreading globally, like the ever-expanding, post-it covered walls of a maniac with a chronic fear of forgetting their groceries.
The Bubble That Never Burst
In 1957, inventors Alfred W. Fielding and Marc Chavannes set out to create an innovative textured wallpaper that the stylish homeowners of the new generation could use to decorate their homes.
By heat-pressing together what were effectively two plastic shower curtains, they ended up with an unusual, textured sheet, with uniform air bubbles between the layers. Unfortunately, but not particularly surprisingly, it failed to become the next big thing in the world of interior decorating.
But the lightweight new material could trap heat quite effectively, so its second career choice was as insulation for greenhouses. Again, this failed to take off, so Fielding and Chavannes were left scratching their heads in search of a use for their quirky product.
The invention finally hit its stride in 1961, when the pair decided to market it as a packaging material, and it was finally branded as Bubble Wrap.
Its unique ability to protect items in transit, without significantly increasing the weight of a package, was perfect for postage. IBM soon expressed interest in using it for transporting their new 1401 computers, and Bubble Wrap soon became a household name. But wallpaper and packaging aside, we all know bubble wrap is at its best when popped. Or worn.
Lubricating Rod Wax
In the 1850s, oil field workers faced constant annoyance by a petroleum byproduct they referred to as ‘rod wax’, since it would accumulate on machinery, causing malfunctions. Some workers, however, started to apply it to their cuts and burns, claiming it helped them heal faster.
A chemist named Robert Chesebrough, looking for a new venture in the petroleum industry, eventually caught wind of the unusual substance. He discovered that “rod wax” could be refined into a light-colored gel; much more appealing than the naturally yellowy-black rod wax.
Chesebrough traveled around New York proclaiming his new product as a miracle healing cream; even burning his skin in demonstrations and applying the gel to his injuries. He would then show his injuries from previous demonstrations, and show how quickly they had healed thanks to the power of petroleum jelly.
This slightly insane marketing tactic apparently worked, since demand from pharmacists soon spiked, and he opened up a whole factory in 1870. He named his product Vaseline; a combination of the German for water (wasser), and the Greek for olive oil (elaion).
While the product’s medicinal claims have since been discredited, with its only real ability being moisturization, Chesebrough was a firm believer. When suffering from pleurisy, he drenched himself head to toe in Vaseline, and even ate a spoonful a day in his final years. With all that vocal lubrication, he must’ve been a real slick-talker. Perhaps that explains his success.
Today, we may see Lysol disinfectant as little more than a useful product to help clean the house. But its array of original uses was surprising, to say the least. Originally introduced in Germany in 1889 to help end a cholera epidemic, the product underwent a disturbing change in marketing in the late 1920s.
Despite being toxic to birds and fish, and deadly when orally consumed by humans, Lysol began marketing itself as a feminine hygiene product. They claimed that vaginal douching with a diluted Lysol solution prevented infections and odor and was therefore great for preserving youth, confidence and marital relations.
While it wasn’t marketed as such, Lysol could also be – and was – used as birth control; a chemical trait that should’ve been a red flag for anyone considering its feminine hygiene applications.
Eventually, doctors began to state the obvious that Lysol should not be put anywhere near a woman’s privates, or anyone’s bodies in general, and so Lysol transitioned into general cleaning supplies. Best we leave that one under the kitchen sink, not in the bathroom drawer.
If you’ve listened to rap or pop music of the past 20 years, you’ll more than likely be familiar with autotune. The tool is used to varying degrees of extremity to shift the pitch of vocals, but did you know it was originally invented to help find oil?
Former Exxon engineer Andy Hildebrand developed autotune’s precursor software to automatically correlate reflected soundwaves underwater, helping to locate oil reserves on the seafloor. He soon began tweaking the software so it could be used to analyze and correct unruly notes in recordings of the human singing voice.
He released the software in 1997, but it wasn’t until 1998 when Cher released her smash-hit ‘Believe’ that the tool got mainstream attention. The producers of Cher’s song realized that if they set Auto-Tune to maximum, it could correct the pitch at the exact time it received the signal, creating a whole new, robotic-sounding voice aesthetic.
While autotune was and still is used for its original purpose of subtle improvements, hip-hop and R&B artists like T-Pain continued in Cher’s wake, and the exaggerated, stylized vocal approach became ingrained in the music industry.
Throwing In The Towel
With the hormonal turmoil women go through during their ‘time of the month’, it’s hardly surprising that they’ve occasionally been known to go ‘on the warpath’ while on their period. But that phrase is much more closely tied to sanitary towels than you might think.
During World War 1, a material made from regenerated plant fiber and wood pulp, known as cellucotton, was developed to help soldiers who’d been shot stop bleeding. Its absorbent, lightweight, hygienic properties made it perfect for the role, and it was produced in huge amounts.
After the war, self-care company Kimberley-Clark found themselves with a massive surplus of cellucotton, so the company cleverly repurposed it. They replaced wartime demand by tapping into a ready-made, permanent market that spanned half the population: women.
Because the materials used were both readily available and cheap, they could be discarded afterwards, and in convenient pad form, the product revolutionized feminine hygiene. Kotex, the largest brand in the mid-20th century, launched their first advertisements for sanitary towels in 1921.
Due to the stigma around menstruation at the time, packaging was minimal and subtle, as were advertisements. Stores even had a special box that women could subtly put money into and then take the pads themselves so they could avoid asking the clerk.
Despite the initial stigma, it’s safe to say cellucotton found its niche. After all, there are better ways now available to treat bullet wounds than plugging them with tampons.
Strange Soda Stories
In 1886, slave owner and former Confederate soldier Dr. John Pemberton invented Coca-Cola. After using morphine to ease the pain of his war injuries, and becoming addicted in the process, Pemberton essentially invented the drink to treat said opiate addiction.
French Wine Coca, the name given to this early version of Coca-Cola, was made of wine, caffeine and the white powder of the coca plant - the same powder that would later make Pablo Escobar famous.
Pemberton’s French Wine Coca was advertised as being able to cure basically anything, from constipation to chronic diseases, while also proclaiming to enhance sexual prowess. When prohibition came along, Pemberton removed the wine and shifted the brand from a medicine to a soda, but the other powerful intoxicant remained in the ingredients until 1903.
After that, Coca-Cola switched to non-psychoactive coca leaves, which remain in use to this day. While Pemberton may have constructed an empire, none of this cured his morphine addiction, and he remained addicted until his death. 7-Up has a similarly drug-filled origin story. The drink was invented by Charles Leiper Grigg in 1929, under the less-catchy name of "Bib-Label Lithiated Lemon-Lime Soda.” The name came from its ingredients, one of which was lithium citrate; a potent mood-stabilizing drug still given to psychiatric patients today.
The name was soon changed to "7-Up Lithiated Lemon Soda", which is slightly better, and finally just “7-Up” in 1936. The true origin of the name “7-Up” is much-disputed, but the most likely theory attributes it to the drink’s seven main ingredients: carbonated water, sugar, citrus oils, citric acid, sodium citrate and lithium citrate.
The ‘up’ is thought to have referred to the emotional ‘lift’ offered by the lithium. If this is the case, then perhaps a name change is in order, seeing as lithium was removed from the ingredients in 1948.
This followed a government ban on using lithium in soft drinks. Apparently, rotting teeth were fine, but the US government drew the line at mind-altering soda. So that’s why you can’t buy Dr. Silvio’s Psychedelic Spritzer anymore! The next time you invent something that may seem useless, hang onto it, because it may be the next big thing. Thanks for reading!