Our lives are enriched by the hundreds, if not thousands, of products that have been developed over many years. What we may not realise is that some of the best known were created for something else and either failed or were more popular, practical or profitable with a new use.
In 1957 two men had an idea to make a textured wallpaper in the hope of launching a successful business. The texture was created by enclosing pockets of air in small evenly spaced bubbles on a layer of plastic.
It may have worked as a temporary padded cell, but it did not work as the next great thing in wall coverings. Nor did it work as greenhouse insulation. The product popped thanks to another standout product. IBM’s new 1401 console in 1959. Packaging had not been used for products much before then and it was novel for electronic equipment. It was a hit and sparked significant growth in packing materials. Bubble Wrap became a trademark of the Sealed Air Corporation which still lists it as one of its main products to this day. A 1992 study found that popping sheets of bubble wrap would have a calming effect on those using it.
An even more well-known product Pemberton’s French Wine Coca, created using cocaethylene which is cocaine in alcohol. The chemist that mixed it based it on versions that had been popular in Europe. He created it to manage his and others addictions to morphine which was widely used at the time. A prohibition required the alcohol removed but cocaine remained. Koala nuts were used and contain caffeine. The syrup was combined with carbonated water and sold as a kind of medicine as carbonated water was considered to have health benefits. It would have disappeared along with many other strange medicines if it were not for the sale of the most of the company to Asa G. Candler. He extended its availability and began what could arguably be called the most successful and sustained marketing effort in human history. According to Coca-Cola, they have grown from nine drinks sold per day in the first year to 1.9 billion per day now.
Another product from the 1800s you may have used today was initially marketed as a surgical antiseptic, it was also marketed to more general use as a floor cleaner. But the use that proved most successful was as a cure for bad breath, although it appears bad breath was not considered an issue at the time. Listerine’s antiseptic nature of most of its ingredients - mint, thyme, wintergreen and eucalyptus - combine with alcohol, which are all antibacterial.
The latest application first tested in 2016 was for the treatment of oral gonorrhoea and showed it was effective in reducing the bacterial count of those studied.
You probably used a Post-it note in the last month, it has a unique adhesive that is sticky but only enough to hold the little paper squares to a board or other paper. It was supposed to be a super strong glue developed in 1968. It wasn't and so the next five years were spent looking for a use for it. The answer came slowly when it was first used as a bookmark with 3M encouraging staff to develop non core products. It began to grow in popularity in the late 70s and remains so today.
Sildenafil was intended to manage pulmonary hypertension which relates to increased blood pressure in the lungs. Suffers would have shortness of breath, chest pains and a rapid heartbeat. The Sildenafil trial showed it could be used for its treatment, but it was a side effect that had made it the product we know today, Viagra. It affects the blood pressure regulation mechanism in the penis. At one point sales were over R16 billion per year.
This article first appeared on 702 : The surprising history of some well known products