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examples of repurposed inventions?
March 30, 2009 7:56 AM   Subscribe

Can you give me examples of things which were invented for one purpose, but came into common use for another purpose? Bonus points if it sucked at whatever it was originally designed to do.

Post-it glue is about as close as I can come, but that's more a story of an invention which needed a marketable use....

Ideas?
posted by Westringia F. to Technology (48 answers total) 15 users marked this as a favorite
 
A microwave oven is a radar inside a box.
posted by kandinski at 7:58 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Does Viagra count? It was originally studied for use in heart disease and high blood pressure.
posted by Diskeater at 7:59 AM on March 30, 2009


Also, whenever I have a bad breakup, I get drunk to begin with, then I start hitting Vasopressin inhalers. If your main squeeze has just decided to walk out on, you, booze and Vasopressin are the ultimate in masochistic pharmacology; the juice makes you maudlin and the Vasopressin makes you remember, I mean really remember. Clinically they use the stuff to counter senile amnesia, but the street finds its own uses for things.
posted by kandinski at 8:02 AM on March 30, 2009 [6 favorites]


Viagra is still used for certain heart patients, and to reduce the symptoms of certain heart/lung conditions like pulmonary hypertension.

Botox was originally designed to stop muscle spasms.
posted by applemeat at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2009


Bisphenol-A was originally developed as an estrogen substitute. It was too unpredictable for medical use, but it was found to be great at making plastic, specifically polycarbonate. Of course, it is still estrogenically active, which causes problems.
posted by alms at 8:05 AM on March 30, 2009 [3 favorites]


Rogaine (minoxidil) was originally developed as a treatment for hypertension (high blood pressure). It was found that, in some patients, there was a correlation between use of the drug (orally) and cessation or even reversal of hair loss! Upjohn created a topical formulation of minoxidil and marketed it as Rogaine.

Some would say that Rogaine sorta sucks as a baldness treatment, but if you compare it to everything that came before, with a combined success rate of zero, it's actually pretty good.
posted by Mister_A at 8:06 AM on March 30, 2009


Thalidomide is used for pain relief and multiple myeloma
posted by JimN2TAW at 8:08 AM on March 30, 2009


Super glue: "During World War II, Coover was part of a team conducting research with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates in an effort to find a way to make a clear plastic that could be used for precision gunsights for soldiers. While working with the chemicals, the researchers discovered that they were extremely sticky, and this property made them very difficult to work with."
posted by blue mustard at 8:10 AM on March 30, 2009


Silly putty was the result of research into synthetic rubber during WW2. It sucked as a synthetic rubber.

Teflon was the result of research into refrigerants. It did not refrigerate, and it took years until a French couple decided to try it on cookware.
posted by jbrjake at 8:12 AM on March 30, 2009


Botox was originally designed to stop muscle spasms.

To be fair, botox was originally used by bacteria as a neurotoxin, and it works very well.
posted by chrisamiller at 8:12 AM on March 30, 2009 [4 favorites]


The origin of modern aspirin can be traced to a byproduct of the late-19th-century German coal-tar dye industry.

Silly Putty (the "usefulness" of which is highly debatable) was originally derived from research into synthetic rubbers.

Agent Orange was, believe it or not, first developed as a plant growth stimulant.

Those are some examples, but I think you'll find a lot more of them if you broaden your interest into things which were discovered, by accident, when looking for something completely unrelated.
posted by valkyryn at 8:13 AM on March 30, 2009


Silly Putty was invented as a rubber substitute.
posted by spamguy at 8:16 AM on March 30, 2009


Avastin was developed to as an anti-cancer drug, and is now being used as a treatment for macular degeneration.
posted by Science! at 8:20 AM on March 30, 2009


Duct tape fails at sealing ducts.
posted by Pastabagel at 8:21 AM on March 30, 2009



Play-Doh was invented by Kutol Products, a Cincinnati soap company, as a compound used to clean soot off wallpaper.
(Take quiz and see Results)

Also, I have heard that gatefold LP records were originally designed to hold two LPs.
posted by applemeat at 8:21 AM on March 30, 2009


Super glue: "During World War II, Coover was part of a team conducting research with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates in an effort to find a way to make a clear plastic that could be used for precision gunsights for soldiers. While working with the chemicals, the researchers discovered that they were extremely sticky, and this property made them very difficult to work with. - posted by blue mustard at 8:10 AM on March 30

On that note...Dermabond, a sort of medical Superglue, is a liquid skin adhesive used to close wounds. (I hadn't known its original intent was to help make them - thanks for that, blue mustard.
posted by arachnid at 8:26 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The wines of the Charente region of France were distilled by the Norse seafarers to save space on the ships and reduce taxes on volume. They originally intended to add water upon arrival at their destination, but the essence from these acidic wines is one of the great accidents of history--Cognac.
posted by weapons-grade pandemonium at 8:30 AM on March 30, 2009


People sometimes repurpose various everyday objects as weapons. In some rare cases their use as a weapon becomes more popular than their intended use (such as baseball bats in countries where baseball is not actually played).
posted by burnmp3s at 8:31 AM on March 30, 2009


Q-tips are used to clean ears.
posted by hootch at 8:39 AM on March 30, 2009


Pipe cleaners.
posted by ook at 8:40 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


The CueCat was designed to read barcodes of advertisements or catalog items to give consumers additional product info, but:
The CueCat concept was a commercial failure. It also received the dubious distinction as one of "The 25 Worst Tech Products of All Time" according to PCWorld Magazine. The CueCat's critics said the device was ultimately of little use: wrote Jeff Salkowski of the Chicago Tribune, "You have to wonder about a business plan based on the notion that people want to interact with a soda can," while Debbie Barham of the Evening Standard quipped that the CueCat "fails to solve a problem which never existed."
Most CueCats are now used to scan book/DVD/etc barcodes for LibraryThing or other catalogs.
posted by phatkitten at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Coca-Cola originally invented to be a medicinal tonic.
posted by applemeat at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2009


Avon's Skin-So-Soft, originally a bath oil and spray, proved to be a terrific mosquito repellent... and is now marketed as both.
posted by carmicha at 8:48 AM on March 30, 2009


Mountain Dew was invented as a whiskey mixer and Cornflakes were invented to stop masturbation...
posted by glider at 8:51 AM on March 30, 2009


When the first working laser was reported in 1960, it was described as "a solution looking for a problem."
posted by jfrancis at 9:04 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Many prescription drugs get a second (often more profitable) life through what's called "off-label use", which when doctors prescribe the drug for things other than its prescribed use. You're not supposed to do it, but loopholes essentially prohibit the FDA from doing anything about it, so it's essentially an open secret.

A lot of commonplace items came out of the NASA program. Gore-Tex, for example.
posted by mkultra at 9:09 AM on March 30, 2009


Oh, and the vibrator was originally a "medical" device for curing that bane of Victorian health, female hysteria.
posted by mkultra at 9:12 AM on March 30, 2009


Benadryl is marketed as either an allergy-aid with a drowsiness side-effect or a sleep-aid with a dry sinus side-effect.

And screwdrivers are commonly used as pry-bars.
posted by LordSludge at 9:18 AM on March 30, 2009


Oh, and the vibrator was originally a "medical" device for curing that bane of Victorian health, female hysteria.

mkultra, I think more accurately you could say that the vibrator was originally marketed for curing hysteria, but was always quite good at its primary intent, which was to induce orgasm.
posted by incessant at 9:37 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


WD-40

http://www.wd40.com/about-us/history/
posted by jara1953 at 9:47 AM on March 30, 2009


It was noted after using lasers for skin procedures that the areas that were treated repeatedly had little to no hair regrowth. Thus born: laser hair removal.
posted by 8dot3 at 10:03 AM on March 30, 2009


Everybody's favorite medium for obtaining pornographic material was originally designed as a way for scientific researchers to share raw data across great distances.
posted by jtfowl0 at 10:29 AM on March 30, 2009 [2 favorites]


Oh, man, I can't believe no one's mentioned that Lysol was marketed as a douche.
posted by MrMoonPie at 10:43 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


Microplane graters were originally made as woodworking tools.
posted by caution live frogs at 11:00 AM on March 30, 2009 [1 favorite]


AZT was a failed cancer drug before it was found to kill HIV cells in the lab.
posted by hworth at 11:06 AM on March 30, 2009


Flexeril was (and is) a tricyclic antidepressant that suck as an antidepressant but turns out the be a totally kick ass muscle relaxant.
posted by legotech at 11:07 AM on March 30, 2009


Graham crackers were invented to suppress sexual thoughts.
posted by eye of newt at 11:19 AM on March 30, 2009


Zyklon B was originally developed as an insecticide in the 1920s. In the 1930s the US used it to disinfect the freight trains and clothes of Mexican immigrants entering the US. The Nazis used it in the gas chambers of their extermination camps during the Holocaust. It's still available as the Uragan D2 pesticide in the Czech Republic.
posted by kirkaracha at 11:31 AM on March 30, 2009


Going for the bonus points, I believe that's called Serendipity.
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:39 AM on March 30, 2009


In the US, paved roads were initially promoted by and for bicylists (and others) well before automobiles were widely available.
posted by brianogilvie at 11:52 AM on March 30, 2009


Or is encompassed by serendipity to be more precise. So some of them still count :)
(Either way you might be interested to note the amount of them that were unintentionally ingested...)
posted by mu~ha~ha~ha~har at 11:54 AM on March 30, 2009


As I recall, Bell originally sought to market his invention for use as a broadcast medium, a way for people to listen to concerts, etc. It's done much better as a one-to-one medium. The infrastructure worked quite well for voice, but it also adapted nicely to data -- the Internet was originally layered on top of the voice network. These days though, its flipping around, a lot of infrastructure has been put into place for IP traffic, with voice traveling on top of that.

Both DSL and cable Modem technology and standards were originally developed for "interactive television," which consisted, from what I can tell, mostly of video on demand, and being able to make QVC purchases without having to put down the remote. Those services were expensive to develop, and my impression is that they started using Internet access as a free source of interactive content during some of the technical trials. This history is one of the reasons that inexpensive Internet connections are so asymmetrical.

One of first practical applications of the laser was to erase typing mistakes (ok, so that's just something one of the early researchers thought to use it for), but most lasers made have probably been used for writing and reading data.

A lot of chemistry and pharmacology is a screening process. Some class of compounds might be identified based on the expectation of certain properties. Researchers then synthesize multiple variations and then test them to identify the most suitable for their original research interest. Along the way, they often find that some of the variations have other interesting processes. My point being that its pretty common that drugs and other chemicals to have origins rather unrelated to their current use.
posted by Good Brain at 12:18 PM on March 30, 2009


"CorningWare was originally a brand name for a unique pyroceramic glass cookware resistant to thermal shock." ... "In 1953, Dr. S. Donald Stookey of the Corning research and development division invented Pyroceram, a white glass-ceramic material capable of withstanding enormous variations in temperature. It evolved from materials originally developed for a U.S. ballistic missile program, and Stookey's research involved heat resistant material for nose cones." It was, however (I believe), successful for the nosecones (no bonus points).
posted by kch at 12:50 PM on March 30, 2009


re: accidental discoveries and serendipity, this is a fun, little book.
posted by _dario at 3:13 PM on March 30, 2009


The Frisbee was originally a pie plate from the Frisbie Pie (or Baking) Company.
posted by MS_gal at 8:24 PM on March 30, 2009


Listerine was first formulated as a surgical antiseptic, and was later sold as floor cleaner and cure for gonorrhea.
posted by hmca at 4:20 AM on March 31, 2009


Wow: you all rock: I've just learned so much. Trying to pick a best one (or best several) is a fool's errand, so I'm just going to leave it unmarked and issue a blanket wow: Wow! Thank you!
posted by Westringia F. at 5:43 AM on March 31, 2009


Old (80's) Grolsch beer bottle tops as pot smoking stones. The top used to be made from porcelain, but is now made of plastic; the porcelain ones are still in circulation in the Netherlands.
posted by StUdIoGeEk at 12:29 PM on March 31, 2009


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