Invention isn't always the child of necessity. Sometimes it's spawned by an attempt at something else that ends up failing in a mildly entertaining fashion. Just ask your mother. Or look at how ...
Andre Cassagnes was a French electrician working at a factory that made Lincrusta, a heavily embossed covering used on walls for decoration. One day, he was peeling if off to put in a new light switch, and like any electrician, he used a pencil to make marks on the wall where he needed to install his materials. Curiously, though, he noticed his markings showed up on the reverse side of the wall. The aluminum particles in the Lincrusta factory caused the markings to appear due to their electrostatic charge.
As engineers are wont to do when they find something neat, he raced home to replicate it. He tried different materials, and found that glass and aluminum powder worked best. Then he hooked up a small pulley to run the stylus, which marked the powder. It was primitive, but it was enough to impress the right people. A year later, he took it to the International Toy Fair in Nuremberg. It became wildly successful, one of the first toys to be advertised on TV, and probably your first experience with revenge when your sibling ruthlessly shook away your painstakingly drawn portrait of Mr. Rogers.
And now, a mere 59 years later, people have almost figured out how to use one to draw something presentable.
Silly Putty has been the bane of every parent with carpeting for decades, but that wasn't the inventor's original intention. During World War II, Japan was invading countries that produced rubber, and that meant an immediate need for a replacement. Researchers put together different compounds to try to make synthetic rubber for the production of gas mask, rafts, tires, and many other essential items for the military.
Chemists Earl Warrick and James Wright came up with a compound that didn't quite hit the rubber mark, but had some cool properties. It's a non-Newtonian fluid, which means that it can flow sort of like a liquid when gentle pressure is applied, but when you take that ball of putty and throw it at a wall, it'll smash like glass. Like so:
We're sure the students will love picking chunks of that off their shoes for the rest of the year.
The putty was shelved as a rubber replacement, but eventually got passed around and landed in the hands of Ruth Fallgatter, who owned a toy store in New Haven, Connecticut. With the help of marketer Peter C.L. Hodgson, she called it Silly Putty and turned it into a must-have toy. In 1977, Crayola bought the rights and chucked it into their marketing machine, and the rest is history. From wartime need to toy goo -- that's America.
Many a former smoker has used hard candy as an alternative way to cope with this stupid, stupid world. Little do they know that they're actually using the candy exactly as intended ... if they're getting it from a Pez dispenser, at least. In 1927 Vienna, Eduard Haas III, an avowed anti-smoker, was looking to sway tobacco users with the tasty distraction of peppermint candy. He named it after "pfefferminz" (German for "peppermint"), and even built a container resembling a cigarette lighter to hold the treats and let smokers trick themselves into thinking they were still cool.
WWII slowed down sales, so Haas decided to bring the candy to the States. There he took a cue from Joe Camel and rebranded them for children, putting toy heads on the top of the dispensers. It was a huge success, and licensing has been granted for almost every imaginable cartoon or movie character, even the disturbing ones.
Deborah Austin/Wikimedia Commons
Rostom Sipan "Ross" Bagdasarian was a USAF staff sergeant stationed in Seville, Spain during WWII. After the war, he became an actor and singer/songwriter, penning songs for Rosemary Clooney and Dean Martin before working on his own tunes. He didn't have much luck until he bought a V-M tape recorder with his last $200. It had a speed modulator that could change the pitch of vocals, and soon he had his first hit with "Witch Doctor" in 1958, which he released under the much more marketable name of David Seville.
We cannot stress enough that this was a Billboard #1 song. The '50s had some strange tastes.
After the success of "Witch Doctor" landed him a deal with Liberty Records, he decided to create anthropomorphic personalities for his voices, naming them after record company execs Alvin Bennet, Simon Waronker, and Ted Keep. Later in 1958, "The Chipmunk Song (Christmas Don't Be Late)" became a #1 single, and it later won two Grammys, proving that the Grammys have always been ridiculous. Bagdasarian died in 1972, so his son Ross Jr. picked up the acorn and started recording the voices with his wife Janice Karman. He then licensed the chipmunk characters to Universal Pictures, and a franchise rivaling any superhero property was born.
If you're seeing a doctor and he comes at you with Silly String, you should be very concerned. He's likely an incompetent maniac -- or worse, Patch Adams. But Silly String was originally intended to be a medical device. In 1972, Leonard Fish and Robert Cox were working on a new way to apply casts to patients with broken bones. They came up with an aerosol can that could be sprayed right on a broken limb, and after trying several nozzles, they had one which sprayed 30 feet. It wasn't exactly practical for the operating room, but they realized it could be a practical joke.
Since they had no experience selling toys, they decided to visit the good fellows at Wham-O. They headed out to California, met with execs, and shot their load all over them. They were promptly thrown out, but the next day they got a telegram asking for two dozen cans for testing. Within two weeks, they were signing contracts.
There's a double twist here, because the medical device that became a toy also became a military tool. Soldiers use Silly String to detect trip wires around bombs and in buildings. They can spray it in a room, and if it hangs in the air, there's your wire. It's not clear how this application was discovered, but it must have been both awesome and terrifying.
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