The most unlikely places

06/01/2016
 
Missiles were kept in underground silos during the Cold War. WD-40 was created to prevent the weapons from rusting.
Missiles were kept in underground silos during the Cold War. WD-40 was created to prevent the weapons from rusting.
As engineering students, it’s pretty much a given that we should be able to come up with our own ideas. 
 
All the problem solving we do in class serves to make us better at knowing how to find good solutions. However, another part of being an engineer is having the ability to put your current resources to the best and most efficient use.  
 
Sometimes this means finding a better application for an existing idea.  The following examples from different times in history all show inventions being reinvented.  
 
Bubble wrap, which started out as two shower curtains glued together with air in between, was originally designed to be a textured wallpaper. Play-Doh was meant to be an improved wallpaper cleaner. Listerine went through several uses, starting with antiseptic, before someone figured out the best use was as a mouth wash.  
 
Alexander Fleming created penicillin after discovering mold growing in his petri dishes.
Alexander Fleming created penicillin after discovering mold growing in his petri dishes.
Gun powder, created in China, started out as an elixir meant to give eternal life. It was also used as a treatment for skin diseases and an insect repellant, before a better use was found. Allegedly a Chinese chef packed it into a bamboo tube, causing it to explode. This led to the birth of fireworks, and the rest is history.
 
American chemist Norman Larsen created WD-40 during the Cold War to keep missiles from rusting in their silos. WD stands for “water dispersion,” and 40 is for the fortieth recipe he tried.  
 
Kleenex, originally called Kotex, were created by Kimberly-Clark and sold as disposable towels to use with cold cream for makeup removal in the 1920s. Kimberly-Clark changed the name to Kleenex and started selling them as a replacement for handkerchiefs after a company researcher starting using them to blow his nose and discovered they worked pretty well. 
 
Other times an idea can come completely by accident, if you’re prepared to recognize it.  
 

An old advertisement for Kimberly-Clark's new product, Kleenex.
An old advertisement for Kimberly-Clark's new product, Kleenex.

Naval engineer Richard James came up with the Slinky after he accidentally knocked an experimental support spring off his shelf.  The idea for ink jet printers came from an engineer who accidentally rested a hot iron on his pen. The ink quickly heated up and shot out of the pen. 
 
Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming returned to his lab after a vacation and found that mold was growing in some of his petri dishes. The mold prevented the bacteria colonies from spreading, a discovery which led him to create penicillin.
 
Silly putty was invented when engineer James Wright was trying to make a substitute for synthetic rubber. He dropped boric acid into silicone oil, but didn’t like the gooey result and threw it on the floor. It bounced back at him.
 
Physicist Percy Spencer had a chocolate bar in his pocket that started to melt when he was conducting a radar-related research project with a machine he had built. He put popcorn into the machine and it popped, making him the first person in the world to use a microwave. 

The moral of all these stories is to keep looking around you. There may come a day when you find answers, or get groundbreaking ideas, from the most unlikely places.