Technologies that outgrow their original intent?
April 17, 2006 12:04 PM   Subscribe

What are some good examples of technologies that end up being used for different or more numerous purposes than originally intended?

I'm looking for historical examples of technologies that were designed for one thing, but ended up being used differently, either by accident or because society just decided the technology was better for something else. This is a very open-ended question, all ideas welcome - if you have cool articles or other background that's even better. Examples would be neat stories like how microwave ovens came about because a researcher who was building magnetrons had a candy bar in his pocket melt, or more boring (but still relevant) cases like how cell phones are moving beyond just being phones and having lots of not particularly phone-related features built into them.
posted by TunnelArmr to Technology (39 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
posted by Kickstart70 at 12:08 PM on April 17, 2006

Lots of prescription medications have so-called "off-label" uses.
posted by bshort at 12:12 PM on April 17, 2006

Television was supposed to be the great educator and information disseminator. We all know how well that worked out.
posted by Faint of Butt at 12:12 PM on April 17, 2006

Thalidomide- now being used as a treatment for Leprosy. (I imagine there are a whole bunch of drugs developed for one use, but ultimately failed and re-purposed for another)
posted by Gungho at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2006

James Burke's Connections television series is largely about this phenomenon, and is highly entertaining to boot.
posted by PinkStainlessTail at 12:13 PM on April 17, 2006

bshort beat me to it.
posted by Gungho at 12:14 PM on April 17, 2006

The great "unintended" pharmaceutical marketing story - Viagra.

From the Wikipedia entry:
It was initially studied for use in hypertension (high blood pressure) and angina pectoris (a form of ischaemic cardiovascular disease). Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested that the drug had little effect on angina, but that it could induce marked penile erections (Boolell et al 1996). Pfizer therefore decided to market it for erectile dysfunction, rather than for angina.
posted by junesix at 12:17 PM on April 17, 2006

Connections was awesome! Thanks for reminding me Pink!

Humans have been doing this since before we were humans. A good rock can be a hammer, anvil, knife, scraper, weight...

Does language and writing count as a technology?
posted by Pollomacho at 12:19 PM on April 17, 2006

posted by box at 12:24 PM on April 17, 2006

Computers can be used to view porn, sometimes using lasers to read data from discs made of plastics.

Fifty years ago, that statement would make no sense.
posted by bh at 12:25 PM on April 17, 2006

Computers can be used to view porn, sometimes using lasers to read data from discs made of plastics.

Fifty years ago, that statement would make no sense.

And other times using former military computer networks and high grade cryptography.
posted by zabuni at 12:30 PM on April 17, 2006

SMS was originally invented to allow "operators to inform all their own customers about things such as problems with the network" (source).
posted by dhoe at 12:32 PM on April 17, 2006

There's the story of the 3M post-it note.
posted by Rhomboid at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2006

This is good stuff guys. I'm trying to write something with a broad chronological scope on technologies taking unpredictable turns in how society treats/uses them, so I'm especially interested in quirky historical stuff from past centuries (or early twentieth). The ways in which PC use has changed are pretty fresh in people's minds.

How was gunpowder originally meant to be used, box? The wikipedia entry's not that enlightening.
posted by TunnelArmr at 12:35 PM on April 17, 2006

Nuclear power / Nuclear bombs - which was first "intended" is probably a chicken & egg story.

Laryngoscope - used by doctors to perform tracheal intubation (insert tube down patient's throat). It was invented by a singing teacher, Manuel Garcia, to observe throat movements during singing.
posted by junesix at 12:36 PM on April 17, 2006

The SMS and post-it note stories are great!
posted by TunnelArmr at 12:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Most of our internet connectivity - regular old modems figure we can transmit audio already, so why not have computers scream at each other? DSL and Cable use unused bandwidth on the existing lines. If IP over powerlines ever takes off, that's another example.

CD-ROMs are an extension of technology designed simply for digital audio. Similarly, plain old audio cassette tapes were used in the '80s to store computers' data.
posted by TheOnlyCoolTim at 12:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Both DSL and Cablemodem technology were orignally developed for "interactive television"

Of course, if the cable and telco monopolies have their way, the Internet will probably look increacingly like the rather top-down world envisioned for ITV.
posted by Good Brain at 12:48 PM on April 17, 2006

Two examples of change in scope: overhead projectors were developed by the US Military. They were developed as an instructional technology, but the scope grew, of course and is now in decline thanks to the digital variety. You might make the case that Microsoft PowerPoint was developed to make business presentations but has become a staple of the modern classroom. In fact, most technologies that find their way into the classroom were developed for some other purpose (e.g. closed circuit tv, film projectors, slide projectors, audio players and recorders of every sort).
posted by wheat at 12:48 PM on April 17, 2006

It's harder, I think, to come up with technologies that are only used for the things they were designed to do.

I mean, when the Web was first announced, it was described as a really neat way to share research papers between academics. Hooray! Long story short, it turns out it had other uses.
posted by Hildago at 1:07 PM on April 17, 2006

Someone's top 10 accidental discoveries. EG: Superglue was meant for optical gun sights.

Silly Putty was stumbled upon during synthetic rubber research.

Apparently nanotubes make a good light.
posted by maschnitz at 1:10 PM on April 17, 2006

Was dynamite originally intended for construction purposes, and then became a weapon? (Didn't this lead Nobel to create the Nobel peace prize? Or am I confusing my stories?)
posted by inigo2 at 1:16 PM on April 17, 2006

In the vein of drugs, Propecia used to be Proscar (propecia treats baldness, proscar treats enlarged prostate). Rogaine used to be a blood pressure drug. They noticed that when people took a systemic dose there would be hirsutism all over. Aspirin as a prophylaxis for heart disease is a new one (Aspirin is a truly bizzare drug. It would probably not be OTC except for the fact that it was grandfathered in.) Strychnine used to be used by chemists to do something called "chiral resolution." And it's a poison too.
posted by oxonium at 1:19 PM on April 17, 2006

Gunpowder was developed for fireworks, right? That's what they told me in elementary school, anyway.

It's harder, I think, to come up with technologies that are only used for the things they were designed to do.

I agree. Something in the nature of tools, or brains, I think.
posted by box at 1:21 PM on April 17, 2006

If memory serves, gunpowder was used for fireworks (for celebratory and religious purposes) before anyone thought of using it to kill others.
posted by jtron at 1:29 PM on April 17, 2006

Hildago: It's harder, I think, to come up with technologies that are only used for the things they were designed to do.

box: I agree. Something in the nature of tools, or brains, I think.

As James Burke puts it, with ideas 1+1 = 3.
(in The Day the Universe Changed, probably the final episode)
posted by Chuckles at 1:42 PM on April 17, 2006

Duct tape.

It was invented to keep water out of ammunition casings.
posted by annaramma at 1:55 PM on April 17, 2006

Botulinum toxin, produced by the bacterium Clostridium botulinum, may be the most potent toxic substance known: approximately 100g could wipe out humanity. Initial interest naturally concerned its potential as a weapon, but its anaerobic nature made this unlikely. Researchers also noticed its muscle-inhibiting ability, and the toxin has been studied as a possible treatment for strabismus, hyperhidrosis, and migraines.

In its best-known guise, BTX-A has been used to create Cher 7.0, among other celebrities.
posted by rob511 at 1:59 PM on April 17, 2006

I think my favourite thing in Connections was how early computers used ready-made data storage methods from weaving, in the Jacquard loom whose name survives today as a term in the textile industry.

And let's not forget that the computer originally "invented" by Turing was a pure thought-experiment, designed only to illustrate a philosophical idea. His computer was a purely abstract theoretical device until the war started and someone asked him to actually build one.
posted by AmbroseChapel at 2:00 PM on April 17, 2006

Would auto manufacturing plants being used to produce airplanes during World War II fit your criteria? Googling "auto factories world war two" produced a lot of hits, including these Wikipedia examples.
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:17 PM on April 17, 2006

This is great stuff guys! Duct tape is a perfect example of what I'm trying to collect, something that was narrowly conceived to do one thing well, and only once the collective creativity of society was loosed upon it did people realize how much more it was good for.
posted by TunnelArmr at 2:27 PM on April 17, 2006

Hedy Lamarr's patent on frequency hopping "was intended to make radio-guided torpedoes harder for enemies to detect or to jam". Now variations on this original concept are "used in devices ranging from cordless telephones to WiFi Internet connections."
posted by SuperSquirrel at 2:27 PM on April 17, 2006

The above are really really good examples, so I'll go for the unanswered part of your question:

The phrase for this, in the circles of those who study it, is reinvention. If you're looking for a classic (but easy to read) book on the subject, with lots of references to classic articles and brief case studies, you should be looking for Diffusion of Innovation, by Everett Rogers.
posted by whatzit at 3:07 PM on April 17, 2006

According to this nifty article, fluoxetine (Prozac) was invented by accident and was originally studied as an antihistamine.
posted by dmo at 3:08 PM on April 17, 2006

Among engineers in the 1960's and 1970's, lasers had a reputation as being "a solution in search of a problem". They were obviously so cool that there had to be some kind of really great use for the damned things, but at the time all the actual uses were pretty special purpose and small-time.

Of course, now lasers are used for all kinds of things. But when they were developed at Bell Labs they didn't actually have any specific application in mind.

Of course, that one pales by comparison to the all-time greatest single invention to come out of Bell Labs in the 1950's: the transistor. It was developed to replace vacuum tubes in analog amplifiers used in the telephone system of the time. You could write a really fat book about all the unpredicted applications we've found for transistors since then.

As Hidalgo says, unexpected use is the rule when it comes to technological advances, not the exception.
posted by Steven C. Den Beste at 3:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Another great chemical example is Cyclamate.

This reminds me of another, Olestra! It was originally intended to provide a concentrated source of calories for premature babies. Here is the idea. Glycerol is a very simple sugar. What we call "fats," "lipids," "triacylglycerols," or "triglycerides" are three fatty acids attached to a glycerol molecule. You get a bit of calories from the glycerol, but of course, the bulk of calories from fats comes from the fatty acids. Some enterprising Proctor and Gamble guys back in the 60's figured, hmm, a fat with a really nutritive/caloric sugar (like sucrose/table sugar) instead of glycerol would provide LOADS of calories. And we can give them to preemies, etc. However, the food value was essentially nil. This is because the enzymes in your body that chew up fat simply can't work their magic on this shape. So we end up with a completely non-nutritive fat that passes through the gut unchanged.

The funniest part is that nobody could think of a use for a noncaloric fat for 20 more years. Then came some legal wrangling, the entrance of the word "anal leakage" into our collective vocabulary, and the paranoia about flushing out nutrients.

Olestra is essentially dead in the water today and it makes me sad. It deserved to get more of a shot than just potato chips. A great article about it is in Jeffrey Steingarten's book, The Man Who Ate Everything.
posted by oxonium at 5:21 PM on April 17, 2006

Kleenex was originally marketed for removing make-up; when the company heard that husbands kept stealing their wives "make-up removers" to blow their noses, they changed their tactics. (This is from Extraordinary Origins of Everyday Things.)
posted by mbrubeck at 6:38 PM on April 17, 2006

Curb cuts on the corners of sidewalks were designed to help the handicapped, but are mostly used by bicyclists.

Television closed captions were developed to enable the deaf community to watch television, and originally involved having a separate set top box on top of the TV set. Since the mid 90s, TVs have become more and more likely to include the circuitry to view closed captions. This has led to bars and restaurants using closed captions to let patrons watch TV without the sound on.

Velcro was developed after a guy took his dog for a walk in the woods and found a bunch of burrs attached to the dog's fur.

Soldiers come up with amazing reinventions in the field. There are military robots designed to investigate suspected IEDs that cost hundreds of thousands of dollars, are in high demand, and require a trained operator. Some soldiers realized that they could use $25 remote controlled cars to do the job.
posted by i love cheese at 6:56 PM on April 17, 2006

On the soldiers-in-the-field example, aren't they also (allegedly) using silly string to find trip wires?
posted by inigo2 at 7:11 PM on April 17, 2006

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