Seeking Examples:

A colleague of mine wants examples that would go in these paragraphs (paragraphs that are broken up here for easier reading online):

Businesses often seek to find new applications for existing products. Hummers, the transport of choice of the Governor of California, began as a multipurpose military vehicle known as Humvees. And the commonly prescribed drug for erectile dysfunction, Viagra, was initially designed to treat hypertension. [** Here is where the examples should go, either to supplement or to supplant the Hummers / Viagra examples. **]

Here, we examine whether the dual income tax regimes (that is, the explicit separate taxation of income from capital and income from labor) found in the Nordic countries might provide a useful model for developing countries. We appreciate that transplanting legal regimes or using prescription drugs for other purposes — known as "off-label uses" in pharmaceutical jargon — is often misguided and may result in undesirable and unintended consequences. And the economic, political, and tax environment in the Nordic countries differ greatly from the circumstance in most developing countries.

Nonetheless, while the dual income tax regimes in the Nordic countries were designed specially to address a problem that does not exist in many developing countries, the approach of explicitly providing separate tax regimes for income from capital and income from labor in developing countries may substantially improve the tax regimes of those countries....

Any suggestions? Again, we're looking for examples of products that originally served market or application A, looked like they wouldn't work well for market or application B, but, to many people's surprise, worked just fine for B, though perhaps different reasons than the ones that made them work in A. Please post them in the comments. Thanks!

Michael Last (mail):
I think Viagra is a bad example - it didn't work as a cardiac drug, so doesn't count as working in situation A. Silly puddy would be another example (originally developed as an adhesive, iirc) that didn't work for its original purpose.

Silly string for detecting trip-wires, if you want a military application.
7.27.2007 7:50pm
Sean O'Hara (mail) (www):
How about the way laser-pointers, as they've gotten cheaper, have been remarketed as cat-toys? And though it's not a product of any specific company, gin and tonic was originally formulated as a way of covering the taste of quinine.
7.27.2007 8:00pm
Clayton E. Cramer (mail) (www):
By the way, I've read that the original Hummer that the Governator drives never sold very well. The H2 and H3 are simply standard GM SUVs with different looking cosmetics. The characteristics of the HMMMV that made it so attractive to the military, such as the offset axles, aren't in the H2 and H3.

The cardboard concrete forms known as Sonotube are widely used for making telescopes now--they are sturdy enough to hold concrete, so they are rigid enough to hold all the optical parts in alignment.

Another example would be the way that the rimfire cartridge, originally intended for shooting bullets, was reused to fire nails for construction. (A lot of nail guns are now using compressed air instead.)

The hair growth drug Rogaine was originally intended for hypertension--but because it grew hair in funny places, they started investigating it for that.
7.27.2007 8:06pm
LTEC (mail) (www):
I believe that microwave ovens were supposed to be for cooking roasts, not for popcorn, reheating, and defrosting.
7.27.2007 8:12pm
Dick King:
Low coefficient-of-expansion [low-COE] glass [Pyrex, for example] was originally developed for large telescope mirrors. You need low-COE because otherwise if the mirror isn't the same temperature over its entire volume and its COE isn't low enough then parts of it will expand or contract have different curvature than other parts. Not good.

The market for multi-meter telescopes is a tad limited, but we now use low-COE glass in cookware. At the time, people might have expected glass to be too brittle, but it doesn't seem to be, and of course glass breaks when you try to use it to cook because parts of it expand and create tension in the still-cool part in contact with the food.

7.27.2007 8:19pm
Silly putty and playdoh were developed for other purposes. Computers were developed for military purposes. gunpowder, steam engines were originally curiosities... etc
7.27.2007 8:21pm
Eric Jablow (mail):
Michael, Viagra™ was developed for the syndrome we call hypertension, which it didn't help. However, it is a very good treatment for pulmonary hypertension which is rapidly fatal; without treatment, life expectancy is 2–3 years. That disease often requires lung transplantation for cure, and that treatment often is impossible, and has its own suite of problems.

Its competitor Cialis™ is under trials for the same disease.
7.27.2007 8:22pm
GPS was originally a military/government-only application. Keyhole satellites were originally used for national-level imagery intelligence, and Google now owns one or more of them, hence Google Earth. Another great one: firefighters noticed that often diapers didn't burn in house fires (or as another version of the story goes, a dumpster fire), an observation that led to the use of the moisture absorbing compound as fire retardant.
7.27.2007 8:27pm
BobVDV (mail):
Post-it notes:

A man named Spencer Silver was working in the 3M research laboratories in 1970 trying to find a strong adhesive. Silver developed a new adhesive, but it was even weaker than what 3M already manufactured. It stuck to objects, but could easily be lifted off. It was super weak instead of super strong. No one knew what to do with the stuff, but Silver didn't discard it. Then one Sunday four years later, another 3M scientist named Arthur Fry was singing in the church's choir. He used markers to keep his place in the hymnal, but they kept falling out of the book. Remembering Silver's adhesive, Fry used some to coat his markers. Success! With the weak adhesive, the markers stayed in place, yet lifted off without damaging the pages.
7.27.2007 8:28pm
Gaius Obvious (mail):
How about WD-40? It was originally developed as a water-displacement substance (hence the name), now used as a household lubricant.
7.27.2007 8:34pm
James Ellis (mail):
Minoxidil/Rogaine (the baldness drug) is another example that comes to mind (also for high blood pressure); Post-it Notes turned out to be a marketable use for a light adhesive that had been floating around at 3M for several years; Gore-Tex was invented for tents, etc.
7.27.2007 8:36pm
Mike Keenan:
TNT was originally used as a yellow dye and is now the most common explosive in the world. I think there are many such examples in organic chemistry.
7.27.2007 8:36pm
I'm not certain that this amounts to a completely different use, but Chrysler originally attempted to market the minivan to tradesmen who didn't need a full-sized van for their tools and equipment. In the first model year, they overproduced stripped down, manual transmission models without the third seat. They had trouble moving those, but hadn't produced enough with automatic transmission, air conditioning, and a third seat because they hadn't realized that the real market was people who wanted to haul the whole Cub Scout pack around.
7.27.2007 8:51pm
Dr. Weevil (mail) (www):
I can't prove it, but didn't Lipton originally create their dehydrated onion soup mix only to make soup with? And didn't the general public discover that mixing it with sour cream made an excellent dip for potato chips, after which Lipton started marketing it as a dip mix?
7.27.2007 8:58pm
J hoyt (mail):
My favorite is baking soda (Arm &Hammer). They convinced people to open the box and put it in the fridge for awhile, then throw it away. Even better, they got folks buy it and then just pour it down the drain. Brilliant!
7.27.2007 9:40pm
Interstate system, internet encryption, and a bunch of other things started off as military-only...

Wasn't Bayer saying a few years back that one aspirin per day is good for your heart or something?

William Shatner was originally designed to be the captain of the Enterprise who always got his shirt torn, got in a fistfight with the alien thing, and made out with the alien woman... he was then useless for a while until Priceline found a new usage for him as a self-parodying spokesperson of sorts.

Duct tape was once an adhesive. Now it's an icon for hipsters.
7.27.2007 10:00pm
J.McFaul (mail) (www):

Originally marketed as a convenient breakfast drink, but was co-opted by NASA for the early space program.

It didn't cath on as a breakfast drink at first. Once the Gemini astronauts were using it, Tang had endorsers with "the right stuff."
7.27.2007 10:13pm
Listerine - was first produced (1879) as a surgical antiseptic.

Also: Bisphenol-A

A popular plastic - used in baby bottles and to line the insides of cans for food, among other things.

Was first developed in search of a synthetic estrogen. Didn't work as good as other synthetic estrogens - works great as a plastic.

Unfortunately, synthetic estrogen in your baby bottle isn't always helpful. Bisphenol-A is now being considered as one of the reasons why girls are entering puberty faster and why men have lower sperm counts and higher prostate cancer rates, among other things.
7.27.2007 10:24pm
The other hair regrowth drug - finasteride - was originally (and still is) a drug for prostate cancer under the name proscar. It turned out that it also helped grow hair, and it's now marketed as propecia for that purpose.
7.27.2007 10:50pm

Cellulose nitrate was first developed as an ivory substitute for billiard balls. It became widely used for small items. About half a century later, George Eastman found he could make film with it. So he did. Lots of film.

Long known issues of the nitrate's flammability, age instability sometimes leading to spontaneous combustion drove the later invention of Cellulose acetate for "safety film".
7.27.2007 10:54pm
KevinQ (mail) (www):
According to Wikipedia, Crisco started out as a substance to make candles from:

But, when the market for candles started to dry up, Proctor and Gamble realized that, well, a hydrocarbon is a hydrocarbon, so why not sell it as a cooking fat. They put recipes calling for Crisco into women's magazines, and it caught on.

7.27.2007 10:58pm
For a while in the 1990s, horse mane &tail shampoo became very popular for humans, and it's still sold for both. The same company had a hoof product that they now market for nails. There is also a creme for cow udders (udder butter?) that has become a popular moisturizer for dry or chapped skin on humans.
7.27.2007 11:04pm
Christine Hurt (mail):
Rumor has it that Avon's Skin so Soft lotion, which was marketed as merely a skin softener, has always worked as a bug repellent. For years, Avon did not market this fact, but it was well known by moms, etc. Now it is marketed as bug repellent after being approved and tested by the FDA. This Slate article alludes to this in passing:
7.27.2007 11:34pm
Thief (mail) (www):
Duct tape. It started out as a waterproof sealing tape for ammunition boxes during WWII. Nowadays you can do just about anything with it from bandaging a wound to fixing a busted spacecraft to making a necktie.

When it comes to duct tape, the question to ask is "what can it NOT do?"
7.28.2007 12:15am
TomHynes (mail):
How about the way laser-pointers, as they've gotten cheaper, have been remarketed as cat-toys?

Sorry, but teasing a cat with a laser is patented:

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7.28.2007 12:37am
I dunno which came first, nitroglycerin blowing up stuff or preventing heart damage, but of the two uses had to be a surprise. I think Nobel was involved.
7.28.2007 2:12am
Dilan Esper (mail) (www):
I have a weird one-- how about LSD? Wasn't it originally conceived as a covert warfare device by the CIA, and is now marketed (albeit illegally) as a recreational drug?

Other, more serious examples-- Menoxidil (Rogaine) was originally approved for a different use, and I believe Listerine and Coca-Cola started out as cure-all tonics.
7.28.2007 2:42am
Dick King:

When it comes to duct tape, the question to ask is "what can it NOT do?"

A job for which duct tape is poorly suited is ... [drum roll, please?] ... sealing ducts.

7.28.2007 3:35am
Sarah (mail) (www):
Water beds were meant for medicinal use (to prevent bed sores in hospital patients,) PVC was tried in a couple of different commercial product ideas before anyone figured out how to make it useful, the Thermos was meant as a laboratory materials storage and control tool before someone thought it'd be a great thing to have at a picnic, the first computers were primarily meant for accounting and then for calculating very complex and tiresome math problems, graham crackers and cornflakes were invented for the moral improvement and health benefit of co-religionists of some very strict Progressive types, and a number of basic electronic gizmos have gone from curiosity to military tool to "golly, what would our world look like without that" fixtures.

My favorite of those is radio, wherein you go from "who on earth would want to listen to a message that isn't for anyone in particular" to the wholesale invention of the culture of broadcasting, to air-traffic controlling, cellphones, 802.11x, weather prediction, tracking people under house arrest, police speed traps, figuring out whether a sun in another solar system has any planets on it... plus all the stuff that isn't based exactly on that technology but wouldn't have been invented without it having been around first (the internet, for one.) If nothing else, no one saw law enforcement or the advancement of science nor the core of a nation's self-defense strategy in the invention of devices that could send signals to one another over significant distances. To say nothing of the propaganda uses radio's been put to over the decades.
7.28.2007 3:40am
cellarat (mail):
A microwave oven is actually a radar set which transmits into an enclosed metal box. I think that this is an excellent example of re-purposed technology.

I was going to mention superglue as an example of a medical adhesive used as a hobby glue. Although it was used by the Army in Vietnam, it was not approved by the FDA for medical uses until 1998. ( )
7.28.2007 4:45am
pie pans to Frisbees (maybe: history's a bit vague)

ulcer treatments to acid reflux treatments (after some jerk tried to wreck it for the Prevacids of the world by curing a lot of ulcers with antibiotics)

videogame derivatives used for training, driver evaluation, etc

LP Records to DVDs/CDs/Hard drives
7.28.2007 6:51am
anji (mail):
Didn't Edison want the phonograph to be a device for the hearing impaired? His initial resistance to marketing recordings for entertainment/music purposes allowed competitors to take a big chunk of the market.
7.28.2007 9:24am
David W. Hess (mail):
I dunno which came first, nitroglycerin blowing up stuff or preventing heart damage, but of the two uses had to be a surprise.

Nitroglycerin was an explosive first. Its medical use as a vasodilator became known after workers chronically exposed to it suffered from headaches and heart problems when exposure was significantly reduced or eliminated.

In contrast to nitroglycerin, the important military explosive RDX was investigated as a medicine before its explosive properties became known many years later.
7.28.2007 9:44am
It was not:

I had planned the synthesis of this compound with the intention of obtaining a circulatory and respiratory stimulant (an analeptic). Such stimulating properties could be expected for lysergic acid diethylamide, because it shows similarity in chemical structure to the analeptic already known at that time, namely nicotinic acid diethylamide (Coramine). During the testing of LSD-25 in the pharmacological department of Sandoz, whose director at the time was Professor Ernst Rothlin, a strong effect on the uterus was established. It amounted to some 70 percent of the activity of ergobasine. The research report also noted, in passing, that the experimental animals became restless during the narcosis. The new substance, however, aroused no special interest in our pharmacologists and physicians; testing was therefore discontinued.
7.28.2007 10:46am
Botox - a poison originally used to treat strabismus, facial spasms, blepharospasm, and the like. Still used for those conditions btw.
7.28.2007 11:09am
The self-sealing envelopes in my office look suspiciously like an adaptation of Maxi-pad technology. There's the same tear-off waxed paper strip covering a layer of adhesive.
7.28.2007 12:17pm
TomHynes (mail):
Sex was originally developed in order to propagate the species, but is now sometimes marketed as a recreational activity. I have personally led mulitple unsuccessful marketing campaigns.
7.28.2007 12:48pm
Jay Myers:
Coca-Cola was originally created as a product of the temperance movement so that people could imbibe cocaine without drinking Mariani wine, which contained that demon alcohol. Now it is used as a delivery system for sugar and the drug caffeine.
7.28.2007 1:14pm
More than once someone has had a sort of shocking revelation when they saw me using a pipe cleaner to actually clean a pipe.

And although I have never seen it personally, I hear that in some areas of the world clothespins are still used for hanging clothes.

When the button on the keychain to open the car doors first came out, I thought it was an unnecessary gimmick. Who needs to open the car from far away? But after using it for a bit, I realized it has several purposes. In nice areas with a warm climate, it's a cute thing that may save a small amount of time or make it easier to open the trunk while carrying things. But in shady areas, cutting down on the need to fumble with your keys arguably has safety benefits as well. And it cuts down the difficulties of freezing weather.
7.28.2007 2:20pm
Shawn Levasseur (mail) (www):
"I believe Listerine and Coca-Cola started out as cure-all tonics."

I recently read that Listerine started out as a floor cleaner.

(It makes you think twice about putting it in your mouth, doesn't it?)
7.28.2007 2:38pm
David W. Hess (mail):
Sex was originally developed in order to propagate the species, but is now sometimes marketed as a recreational activity.

Asexual reproduction allows propagation with much greater efficiency. Wow. That is difficult to say with a straight face.

Evolution is the ultimate master of invention reuse.
7.28.2007 9:19pm
Lucas (mail):
Heroin was originally developed to treat morphine addiction, though it is mainly used now for recreational purposes. For that matter, LSD-25 was originally developed in the hopes that it could be a more potent version of ergotamine (a labor-inducing drug). It has since been repurposed for recreation and used in the development of migraine treatments. (LSD itself treats migraines, and was hence used to develop lower-symptom migraine treatments.) For that matter, most recreational drugs had other purposes--cocaine as a local anesthetic, meth as a appetite suppressant, morphine as a painkiller, and MDMA (ecstasy) to improve openness during therapy (clinical studies are still ongoing for PTSD).

In highschool, the graphing calculators we *were* allowed to carry were hacked to become the gameboys we *weren't* allowed to carry. In the other direction, Playstation 2's were used for cluster supercomputing at the NCSA and elsewhere.

Graham crackers were originally supposed to be a health food--now mainly used as a crust in junk food.

My father's keyring holder was originally designed for mountain climbing as a way to affix the rope to yourself. I imagine more of them are sold to hold keyrings than to mountain climbers.

A number of pharmaceuticals have been repurposed over the years--aspirin being the most famous. Perhaps the most infamous would be Thalidomide, which has also been used to prevent the growth of blood vessels in tumors (the same reason it causes birth defects--blood vessel growth is essential to normal development in fetuses.)

That's all that comes to mind right now...
7.29.2007 1:44am
Scott S. (mail):
Zyban (the anti-smoking drug) is the same as Wellbutrin (the anti-depression drug). The makers of Wellbutrin discovered that it helped people quit smoking and gave it a new name to differentiate it from Wellbutrin.

I apologize for any misspellings or if this was posted earlier.
7.29.2007 1:15pm
AndyM (mail):
Kleenex was invented as a disposable makeup remover -- a couple years later they discovered that most of their customers were using it as disposable hankerchiefs, and started marketing it that way.

(link to description of history of kleenex)

Doctor Bunting's Sunburn Remedy, a cream to reduce the pain of sunburns, got rebranded as Noxema and sold as a skin lotion when a customer claimed it had "knocked out his exema"
7.29.2007 2:02pm
Ty Busby (mail):
The anti-depression drug Wellbutrin turned out to be effective in quitting smoking. It was later rebranded as Zyban.
7.29.2007 5:23pm
JohnGalt47 (mail):
Viagra actually has a [different] recreational use. It has been approved to prevent cerebral and pulmonary edema, also known as altitude sickness. Mountaineers and alpine skiers have been using it regularly for several years.
7.29.2007 10:06pm
How about fire departments using Hummers (H1) as brush trucks to get to fires that are well off the beaten path. In fact, I think Hummer markets a model specifically for that.
7.30.2007 9:12am
JZB (mail):
Rasps migrated to the kitchen for use as citrus zesters, cheese graters, etc., and Microplane eventually created a whole line of kitchen-specific rasps-turned-graters. Similarly, propane torches became so popular for melting the sugar crust on top of creme brulee that manufacturers created special culinary ones (less powerful, apparently).
7.30.2007 5:40pm
Waldensian (mail):
Warfarin. Started out as a rat poison developed by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (hence the first part of the name), became a blood thinner (most people know it as Coumadin).

Rat poison to life-saving medication -- pretty strange leap.
7.30.2007 6:11pm
theobromophile (www):
Re: Skin So Soft. I remember my dad putting it on us in the late '80s to keep away the greenheads (or some weird bug found on the shores of Massachusetts).

Teflon was a failed experiment. Its original purpose was an improved coolant gas. The scientist who made it opened up the reaction vessel the next day to find this slippery stuff coating the inside.

Rat poison to life-saving medication -- pretty strange leap.

Very dilute poisons can actually improve the health of the organism. It's all about getting the right concentration.
7.30.2007 6:55pm
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