Inventions Revisited

On November 21, 1877, Thomas Edison announced his invention of the phonograph. He may have been trying to invent the world’s first answering machine; his original intent was to find a way to record telephone communications.

The original recording device used a stylus on a tinfoil cylinder, which played back a simple song he’d recorded. My guess is that Edison quickly became bored with his phonograph and moved on to other things. Considering he owned 1,093 patents by the time he died, I think he quickly moved on following numerous inventions.

I find his choice of a name for his invention rather interesting. Other inventors took the basic principles of the phonograph and developed the gramophone and victrola. Later such devices were simply called record players, but we eventually evolved to hi-fi and stereo systems. And the tinfoil cylinder was pushed aside by recording discs, tape, and compact discs using laser technology.

The name “victrola” led to the name of a company that is still around; Motorola was begun by a group of men determined to make a victrola that would work in an automobile. When I think of the complexity of trying to get a stylus to not bounce around on a record as a Tin Lizzy bounced along dirt roads, I think those men must have been true dreamers! What many people fail to realize is that a number of similar problems had to be overcome in order for that CD player in the dash board to play our favorite music without bouncing from track to track.

So far today I’ve mentioned two items that began their existence as something other than what they finally became. A third item that falls into that category is silly putty. It was invented in 1943 by James Wright. He was working for General Electric at the time and was part of a large team attempting to create a synthetic rubber that could be used to manufacture tires and other items needed for the war effort.

Various scientists ‘played’ with the polymerized substance for a number of years… trying to find a practical use for it. Finally, in 1950, a toy store owner, Ruth Fallgatter, saw a market for the stuff and Silly Putty became a toy that can still be bought to entertain kids of all ages.

One other product that resulted from something that didn’t work as planned is known as ‘Post-it” notes. In 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver invented a low tack, reusable pressure sensitive adhesive that no one at the 3M Corporation knew what to do with. Then, in 1974, fellow employee, Art Fry, recognized that the adhesive was perfect for creating a bookmarker that would not fall out, but could be removed when no longer needed.

I’m sure there are many other inventions that turned out to be something other than what was planned, and it’s very likely that similar items are sitting on shelves waiting for someone to think of a practical use.

If you have such an item, tell me about it. Maybe I can think of the practical use and we can all retire!


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