looking for outside-the-box thinkers who changed the world
May 17, 2008 11:02 PM   Subscribe

looking for examples of world-changing innovation as the result of seeing a conventional thing in an unconventional way.

my girlfriend has a writinging assignment wherein she must discuss a world-changing event (could be in the sciences but preferrably not, which is what makes it difficult) that came as the result of one's ability to see things in a new light. this last thing is key: there has to have been some pivotal point where our protagonist has had a revelatory shift in perspective on some possibly mundane thing.

we're thinking along the lines of one of the many connections in the documentary "connections" except less accidental and more visionary.

also, more obscure is probably better... nothing really comes to mind, except the usual sciency suspects.
posted by klanawa to Grab Bag (19 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
This may not be precisely what you're looking for, but it's interesting nonetheless...

Anesthetics (ether, nitrous oxide) were used as party drugs for decades before anyone thought they would be useful in surgical procedures. William Morton, a dentist, noticed a friend at a party do (some hits of?) ether then fall and injure himself, but not be in any pain. Morton thought it might make his nervous dental patients more comfortable, so decided to start using it in his practice.
posted by phunniemee at 11:11 PM on May 17, 2008

You mean like this? What was previously thought to be a contaminant was actually penicillin.

Fleming recounted later that the date of his breakthrough was on the morning of Tuesday, September 28, 1928. At his laboratory in the basement of St. Mary's Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College), Fleming noticed a halo of inhibition of bacterial growth around a contaminant blue-green mold Staphylococcus plate culture. Fleming concluded that the mold was releasing a substance that was inhibiting bacterial growth and lysing the bacteria. He grew a pure culture of the mold and discovered that it was a Penicillium mold, now known to be Penicillium notatum.

Or maybe this? Cholera proven to be water-borne and not airborne by essentially making a map of where the outbreaks were occurring and shutting off a water pump.

On proceeding to the spot, I found that nearly all the deaths had taken place within a short distance of the [Broad Street] pump. There were only ten deaths in houses situated decidedly nearer to another street-pump. In five of these cases the families of the deceased persons informed me that they always sent to the pump in Broad Street, as they preferred the water to that of the pumps which were nearer. In three other cases, the deceased were children who went to school near the pump in Broad Street.

Or something like this? The earth goes around the sun, and not the other way around...
posted by Cool Papa Bell at 11:29 PM on May 17, 2008

You also have Semmelweis, the Hungarian physician who realized that disease could be transferred from patient to patient and advocated hand washing. Unfortunately, no one believed him, and he died alone in an asylum before germ theory caught on. But he was a really smart guy and experimented away a lot of crazy theories as to why the women in his maternity ward kept getting sick.
posted by phunniemee at 11:34 PM on May 17, 2008 [1 favorite]

I wonder if Douglas Hofstadter's Gödel, Escher, Bach or even I Am a Strange Loop might be of some help. Hofstadter's playful/intuitive/gymnastic mind seems to delight in these things, which, as I understand him, are not accidents, but logical patterns.
Note I am more artistic than scientific, so perhaps I misrepresent the man.
posted by dawson at 11:39 PM on May 17, 2008

could be in the sciences but preferrably not

This leads me to thinking in terms of business and organizational strategies. What about?
  • Designing and marketing to the bottom of the pyramid: realizing that despite the modest per capita income of most people in the world, their sheer numbers make them valuable customers
  • The relatively recent expansion of discrimination among different types of customers: recognizing different types of buyers and how to cater to them. Whether you think it's a *good* type of world-changing is irrelevant; this type of thinking turns around businesses and generates profit.
  • If you want to go back a ways, what about the realizations Ford made that turned over manufacturing and business? For example, the assembly line, and the idea of creating markets (in his case, that few people earned enough to buy a car, so he raised salaries to make the cars affordable to more people).

  • posted by whatzit at 11:49 PM on May 17, 2008

    The idea of the assembly line predated Ford. (Adam Smith!)
    posted by phunniemee at 11:53 PM on May 17, 2008

    Fair enough, phunniemee. I guess I was focusing more on the implementation.

    What really brought me back here though was thinking about some other possibilities: alternate uses of prime numbers (encryption), better ways to choose winners (instant-runoff voting),and there's got to be something cool about typography (i was thinking of this article on road signs).
    posted by whatzit at 12:03 AM on May 18, 2008

    This is a picture of a cow's head: A.

    I will externalize my memory of how many cows you owe me by letting each cow head picture represent one real cow: AAAA.


    I have come up with about twenty pictures of things, but there are more than twenty things in my world that I want to count. What to do?

    I can keep drawing ever more elaborate pictures of things, or I can use my existing pictures as building blocks that represent arbitrary sounds, not arbitrary things.
    posted by orthogonality at 12:43 AM on May 18, 2008 [2 favorites]

    The invention of Velcro?

    I was going to suggest the Bubble Chamber but it turns out that the story of the inventor inspiration for it came from staring into a pint of beer turns out to be a bit of a misnomer.
    posted by fearfulsymmetry at 3:08 AM on May 18, 2008

    The sewing machine was made possible when someone had the insight to put the eye at the tip of the needle instead of at the blunt end of the needle, as had always been used in hand sewing. When you think that before the sewing machine, every piece of clothing you wore had to be sewn by hand by somebody, that's a huge impact on the world.
    posted by happyturtle at 3:18 AM on May 18, 2008

    That guy who drew the london underground map? Harry Beck.
    posted by kjs4 at 4:34 AM on May 18, 2008

    Whilst searching for a way to create a synthetic equivalent of Quinine to combat Malaria, Sir William Perkin invented the first Aniline dye in his garden shed in 1856, during the college vacation whilst he was studying chemistry under the great August Hoffman in London.

    His unique genius was to recognise that the murky purple gloop he had made had the property of dyeing cloth. Before his discovery all dyes were organic compounds which were extremely difficult and therefore expensive to produce. Realising the commercial opportunity to cheaply manufacture his discovery Perkin became the first ever industrial chemist. Making his own fortune and making colourful fashions affordable for the masses. His discovery not only proved that science could have real practical and commercial applications, Aniline dyes being Coal Tar derivatives, laid the foundations for the entire modern petroleum industry.

    Look here for a more complete description than it would be worth putting here.

    Simon Garfield's biography of Sir William is also worth a punt.
    posted by munchbunch at 8:08 AM on May 18, 2008

    I think the hard part of this is finding a truly mundane item rather than an innovative one. The microwave was transformed for cooking use after a research scientist noticed that it melted a bar of chocolate in his pocket. The slinky was transformed into a toy when the inventor noticed its 'fun' properties while working on springs for a gyroscope system. The dishwasher only became popular when marketed as a sanitizing device rather than a labor-saving one.

    The pet rock may be a good example--rock into a fad/toy.
    posted by underwater at 8:40 AM on May 18, 2008

    I think it was in one of Jared Diamond's books that I read the "latrine" theory of the invention of agriculture. The idea is that early humans probably had certain favorite areas for pooping, and eventually somebody noticed that lots of useful plants germinated in those "latrines", from all the seeds in the poop. Latrines tended to be close to home, too, which sure beat wandering all over the place foraging for widely scattered edibles. Ah ha! - bring seeds home and plant them where it's more convenient. Thus agriculture was born, the theory goes.

    This may be a little too vague for the assignment, since it's a theory rather than a documented event, but agriculture certainly changed the world.
    posted by Quietgal at 8:53 AM on May 18, 2008

    I think the hard part of this is finding a truly mundane item rather than an innovative one.

    Yes, the world of mundane items is good territory to cover. CorningWare was originally developed for missile nose cones, and then someone thought it would make good pots and pans.
    posted by Cool Papa Bell at 9:55 AM on May 18, 2008

    damn, look at all this stuff! thanks for the responses. i'll look through and pass them on.
    posted by klanawa at 10:40 AM on May 18, 2008

    There's also old Archimedes stepping into the tub & noticing the level of the water rise. I'm sure he had seen it many times before, but this time he saw that the water rising was related to the fact that the volume of his foot displaced a corresponding volume of water. And eureka! he runs naked through the streets of Syracuse because he's figured out how to measure the volume of an irregular object and, therefore, how to calculate its density (weight/volume=density).

    Excitable guy.
    posted by jammy at 1:07 PM on May 18, 2008

    Actually, I have an even better one. And it's not even very science-y. But, visionary? Very.

    So, once upon a time this guy named Gautama got freaked out by the nasty things in life & decided to drop out of society & live in the woods. He had heard that if he could just suppress all his physical needs he might be able to avoid all the suffering that comes with having a mortal body. One day, after having gone on a long fast he fainted while bathing in a river & nearly drowned. Hmm, he thought, this doesn't seem to be working out - what am I doing wrong? As he sat there, a boat went by with some musicians on it & he heard one of them say "Tighten the string too much & it will snap. Leave it too loose & it won't play." Suddenly, he saw that he should take a Middle Way & avoid extremes if he was going to accomplish his goal of freedom from suffering.

    A little while later he sat down in a place called Deer Park & changed the world.
    posted by jammy at 1:45 PM on May 18, 2008 [1 favorite]

    Kary Mullis: LSD helped him develop the polymerase chain reaction that helps amplify specific DNA sequences

    Nobel Prize genius Crick was high on LSD when he discovered the secret of life

    German chemist Friedrich August Kekule's fame rests in large part on his discovery of the chemical structure of the benzene molecule in 1864 - a structure which came to him in an astonishing dream
    posted by hulahulagirl at 8:54 PM on May 19, 2008 [1 favorite]

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