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jamie, flickr

11 Successful Products Originally Invented for Something Else

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jamie, flickr

Although some of these are sort of cringe-inducing in their original applications, they found new life—and commercial popularity—in unintended ways.

1. Kotex

During World War I, Kimberly-Clark produced wadding for surgical dressing made out of a relatively new material called Cellucotton. It worked just fine for treating battle wounds, but the Red Cross nurses found that the super absorbent material also had personal hygiene benefits. After the war, the market for surgical wadding dropped off, but the company found a new market for "sanitary napkins." The new product was given the name Kotex, short for "cotton texture," and was openly advertised as a re-purposing of the war material.

2. Kleenex

The public was slow to come around on the idea of disposable, publicly marketed sanitary pads, and while they waited for the tides to turn, Kimberly-Clark found another use for its supply of creped wadding. Scientists created the super thin, soft tissues we know today before they even knew what it would be used for. Initially, marketers promoted it as a replacement for "cold cream towels," which were used to apply skincare serums. Ads focusing on the cosmetic value—calling it "the new secret of keeping a pretty skin as used by famous movie stars"—sold Kleenex from its inception in 1924 until nose-needs were introduced into the marketing campaign in 1930.

3. Bubble Wrap

A bubble wrap-lined room seems like the sort of idea that would come about after people everywhere had become obsessed with the satisfying sensation of popping the bubbles that keep our fragile items safe in transit. And yet, wallpaper was actually the original intent behind engineer Al Fielding and Swiss inventor Marc Chavannes' invention. Turns out, the market for textured wallpaper was not what they had hoped, and the pair struggled to find an alternate angle. Despite some viability, the plan to pitch the material as an insulator for greenhouses didn't pan out either. Then, in 1959, IBM had announced their new 1401 variable word length computer, and Fielding and Chavannes had an idea. They pitched bubble wrap as a packaging material for the fragile new technologies, and IBM agreed to give it a try. From there, bubble wrap found new purpose and people were left wishing they had whole rooms lined with the stuff. Probably.

4. Nalgene

The favorite water bottle of especially active outdoorsy folk can trace its history back to the laboratory. Nalge Company, in upstate New York, developed a line of polyethylene laboratory equipment that could withstand high temperatures and reactive chemicals, and, unlike glass containers, be virtually unbreakable. This worked wonderfully for centrifuge bottles, filter units, storage tanks, etc, but in the 1970s, Nalgene’s president Marsh Hyman heard that some of the scientists had found a second use for the containers out on the trails. To test the viability of this alternate application, he took an assortment of Nalgene products to a campout with his son’s Boy Scout troop. The containers were a hit with the campers. It took some more developments in the material before Nalgene would advertise water bottles but they held on to their laboratory roots.

5. Lysol

mrbill, Flickr

OK, there's a lot to unpack here. Let's start with the basics: In the first half of the 20th century, Lysol was advertised as a "vaginal douche." At the time, birth control methods like condoms and diaphragms were expensive and difficult to come by. So the Lysol ads hinted at an additional benefit for their feminine hygiene product: contraception. Of course, not only did Lysol fail to prevent pregnancy, it was incredibly dangerous down there, despite marketing claims to the contrary. To add misogynistic insult to inflamed genital injury, the ads appealed to women's insecurities with thinly—or not at all—veiled implications that a husband's infidelity or marital displeasure was the direct result of his wife's, um, uncleanliness and rampant fertility.

6. Listerine

Jamie, Flickr

Listerine was invented 135 years ago, first as a surgical antiseptic, but also as a cure for gonorrhea (don’t try that at home). An article from 1888 recommends Listerine "for sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes." Over the course of the next century, it was marketed as a refreshing additive to cigarettes, a cure for the common cold, and as a dandruff treatment. But it was in the 1920s that the powerful, germ-killing liquid finally landed on its most lucrative use as a magical cure for bad breath.

7. Propecia

Propecia, that ubiquitous drug used to treat male-pattern baldness, was originally marketed as Proscar, a drug to treat the benign enlargement of the prostate. After five years on the market in the 1990s, it became clear that one of the side effects of Proscar was—you can practically see the money signs flashing in the pharmaceutical marketers’ eyes—hair growth on bald men. Cha-ching!

8. Viagra

Viagra, or Sildenafil, as it's officially known, was originally conceived as a treatment for hypertension, angina, and other symptoms of heart disease. But Phase I clinical trials revealed that while the drug wasn’t great at treating what it was supposed to treat, male test subjects were experiencing a rather unexpected side effect: erections. A few years later, in 1998, the drug took U.S. markets by storm as a treatment for penile dysfunction and became an overnight success. It now rakes in an estimated $1.9 billion a year.

9. Brandy

Brandy, that delightful, caramel-colored after dinner drink, started off as a byproduct of transporting wine. About 900 years ago, merchants would essentially boil the water off of large quantities of wine in order to both transport it more easily, and save on customs taxes, which were levied by volume. After a while, a few of these merchants, bored perhaps after a long day on the road, dipped into their inventory and discovered that the concentrated, or distilled, wine actually tasted pretty darn good. Voila! Brandy was born.

10. Coca-Cola

SenseiAlan, Flickr

Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most famous brand names, was originally invented as an alternative to morphine addiction, and to treat headaches and relieve anxiety. Coke’s inventor, John Pemberton—a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who himself suffered from a morphine addiction—first invented a sweet, alcoholic drink infused with coca leaves for an extra kick. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. It would be another two decades before that recipe was honed, sweetened, carbonated and, eventually, marketed into what it is today: the most popular soda in the world.

11. Play-Doh

Play-Doh, that strange, brightly colored, salty clay that all of us grew up molding and poking (and, occasionally, nibbling), was first invented in the 1930s by a soap manufacturer named Cleo McVickers, who thought he’d hit upon a fantastic wallpaper cleaner. It wasn’t for another 20 years that McVicker’s son, Joseph, repurposed the goop as clay for pre-schoolers and called it Play-Doh, a product that remains wildly popular among the under-5 crowd today.

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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
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Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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8 Common Dog Behaviors, Decoded
May 25, 2017
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iStock

Dogs are a lot more complicated than we give them credit for. As a result, sometimes things get lost in translation. We’ve yet to invent a dog-to-English translator, but there are certain behaviors you can learn to read in order to better understand what your dog is trying to tell you. The more tuned-in you are to your dog’s emotions, the better you’ll be able to respond—whether that means giving her some space or welcoming a wet, slobbery kiss. 

1. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with his legs and body relaxed and tail low. His ears are up, but not pointed forward. His mouth is slightly open, he’s panting lightly, and his tongue is loose. His eyes? Soft or maybe slightly squinty from getting his smile on.

What it means: “Hey there, friend!” Your pup is in a calm, relaxed state. He’s open to mingling, which means you can feel comfortable letting friends say hi.

2. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing with her body leaning forward. Her ears are erect and angled forward—or have at least perked up if they’re floppy—and her mouth is closed. Her tail might be sticking out horizontally or sticking straight up and wagging slightly.

What it means: “Hark! Who goes there?!” Something caught your pup’s attention and now she’s on high alert, trying to discern whether or not the person, animal, or situation is a threat. She’ll likely stay on guard until she feels safe or becomes distracted.

3. What you’ll see: Your dog is standing, leaning slightly forward. His body and legs are tense, and his hackles—those hairs along his back and neck—are raised. His tail is stiff and twitching, not swooping playfully. His mouth is open, teeth are exposed, and he may be snarling, snapping, or barking excessively.

What it means: “Don’t mess with me!” This dog is asserting his social dominance and letting others know that he might attack if they don’t defer accordingly. A dog in this stance could be either offensively aggressive or defensively aggressive. If you encounter a dog in this state, play it safe and back away slowly without making eye contact.

4. What you’ll see: As another dog approaches, your dog lies down on his back with his tail tucked in between his legs. His paws are tucked in too, his ears are flat, and he isn’t making direct eye contact with the other dog standing over him.

What it means: “I come in peace!” Your pooch is displaying signs of submission to a more dominant dog, conveying total surrender to avoid physical confrontation. Other, less obvious, signs of submission include ears that are flattened back against the head, an avoidance of eye contact, a tongue flick, and bared teeth. Yup—a dog might bare his teeth while still being submissive, but they’ll likely be clenched together, the lips opened horizontally rather than curled up to show the front canines. A submissive dog will also slink backward or inward rather than forward, which would indicate more aggressive behavior.

5. What you’ll see: Your dog is crouching with her back hunched, tail tucked, and the corner of her mouth pulled back with lips slightly curled. Her shoulders, or hackles, are raised and her ears are flattened. She’s avoiding eye contact.

What it means: “I’m scared, but will fight you if I have to.” This dog’s fight or flight instincts have been activated. It’s best to keep your distance from a dog in this emotional state because she could attack if she feels cornered.

6. What you’ll see: You’re staring at your dog, holding eye contact. Your dog looks away from you, tentatively looks back, then looks away again. After some time, he licks his chops and yawns.

What it means: “I don’t know what’s going on and it’s weirding me out.” Your dog doesn’t know what to make of the situation, but rather than nipping or barking, he’ll stick to behaviors he knows are OK, like yawning, licking his chops, or shaking as if he’s wet. You’ll want to intervene by removing whatever it is causing him discomfort—such as an overly grabby child—and giving him some space to relax.

7. What you’ll see: Your dog has her front paws bent and lowered onto the ground with her rear in the air. Her body is relaxed, loose, and wiggly, and her tail is up and wagging from side to side. She might also let out a high-pitched or impatient bark.

What it means: “What’s the hold up? Let’s play!” This classic stance, known to dog trainers and behaviorists as “the play bow,” is a sign she’s ready to let the good times roll. Get ready for a round of fetch or tug of war, or for a good long outing at the dog park.

8. What you’ll see: You’ve just gotten home from work and your dog rushes over. He can’t stop wiggling his backside, and he may even lower himself into a giant stretch, like he’s doing yoga.

What it means: “OhmygoshImsohappytoseeyou I love you so much you’re my best friend foreverandeverandever!!!!” This one’s easy: Your pup is overjoyed his BFF is back. That big stretch is something dogs don’t pull out for just anyone; they save that for the people they truly love. Show him you feel the same way with a good belly rub and a handful of his favorite treats.

The best way to say “I love you” in dog? A monthly subscription to BarkBox. Your favorite pup will get a package filled with treats, toys, and other good stuff (and in return, you’ll probably get lots of sloppy kisses). Visit BarkBox to learn more.

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