Small hobbies, big ideas
December 6, 2012 12:54 PM   Subscribe

If Steve Jobs never took a calligraphy course in college the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts. What other significant innovations started off as unrelated side interests?
posted by laptolain to Technology (7 answers total) 10 users marked this as a favorite
Samuel F.B. Morse, usually credited as the inventor of the telegraph, spent most of his adult life as a professional painter. The telegraph was a project he got involved with as a result of a conversation he had on an ocean voyage returning to France after the death of his wife.

(Morse's painting career is prominently featured in David McCullough's recent book about the waves of Americans in Paris in the 19th Century, "The Greater Journey - Americans In Paris")
posted by briank at 1:09 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Along those same lines, John James Audubon did a bunch of different things, including being a soldier, but his hobby was painting.
posted by Melismata at 1:18 PM on December 6, 2012

The microwave oven was invented during WWII when Percy Spencer notice that the chocolate in his pockets was melting when he stood in front of one of the magnetrons used for radar. The microwave was patented 2 months after WWII ended by Raytheon. (Presumably radar was classified until then.)
posted by Hactar at 1:33 PM on December 6, 2012 [3 favorites]

Donald Knuth, a pioneering and influential computer scientist, set aside years from working on his magnum opus to create TeX, a typesetting system still in use in important circles and vastly influential on the development of later markup languages and document software.
posted by brennen at 2:14 PM on December 6, 2012

James Burke's Connections is filled with this sort of thing. For example, using punch cards to program "computers" was inspired by the Jacquard Loom.
posted by drezdn at 4:57 PM on December 6, 2012 [2 favorites]

Specifically, a picture of Jacquard with his punch cards inspired Charles Babbage.
posted by drezdn at 4:59 PM on December 6, 2012

the Mac would have never had multiple typefaces or proportionally spaced fonts

Maybe not specifically the Mac, but the concept of WYSIWYG displays and proportional typefaces was under study in the 1970s and the first implementation was on the Xerox Star. The story that Jobs and Apples ripped off Xerox PARC is a bit silly because again, these were advances that were actually anticipated once the technology could catch up.

To answer your question, one might point to the Walkman -- since Sony CEO Akio Morita was an opera buff, he wanted a way to listen to his favorite music on e.g. long trans-Pacific flights.

Maybe closer would be George de Mestral, who noticed how burrs stuck to his dog while they were out hunting, leading to the invention of velcro.

The Post-It note was born because a 3M employee, notably not the inventor of the tacky adhesive (who hadn't figured out a use for it), was in a choir and used a sample to bookmark his hymnal.

Cyanoacrylate (superglue) fingerprint fuming came about because the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan had a fish tank. When it cracked, they superglued it, and the fingerprints left behind gave them the idea.

There are numerous other unintended inventions, where someone was looking for X and found Y, but I don't think that fits your criteria. My examples are of the but-for variety.
posted by dhartung at 12:23 AM on December 7, 2012 [2 favorites]

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