15 top industry spanning innovations

Coming up with a new idea is a challenge in any walk of life; innovation, especially useful and profitable innovation, is no mean feat. While necessity is indeed the mother of invention, only considering the necessities of your own industry could get in the way of seeing the opportunities lying elsewhere. Cross industry innovation is the application of one industry’s novelties to another.

Here are 15 such inventions that were born elsewhere.

Dyson vacuum cleaner

Cleaning apparatus

Original spark: Industrial saw mills
What went wrong/right:
After becoming frustrated at the ineffectiveness of the so-called ‘most powerful vacuum cleaner’ of the time, inventor Sir James Dyson set out to create a better one. After a visit to an industrial saw mill he noticed that the saw mill was removing sawdust through an industrial cyclone powered by centrifugal separators. He began wondering whether the technology could be used at a smaller scale — to suck up particles smaller than sawdust and be housed in a device smaller than an industrial saw mill. Using the cyclone technology shown in the original Dyson patent here, he eliminated the traditional, suction-draining bag, became a household name and changed an industry forever.

Post-it notes

Original spark: Super strong adhesive
What went wrong/right:
Post-it notes were mistakenly invented by 3M scientist Spencer Silver. While attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive, he inadvertently created a low-tack, pressure sensitive and reusable adhesive — almost the opposite of what he wanted.

Six years later, a colleague of Silver’s, Art Fry, came up with the idea to use the adhesive as a bookmark in his church hymnbook. Using a neighboring lab’s left over yellow scrap paper, he developed the post-it note. Initially, American conglomerate 3M gave out free samples to consumers with a full product being rolled out in 1979.

Maclaren’s Stroller

Original spark: Aircraft undercarriages
What went wrong/right:
Owen Maclaren (1907–1978) was an aeronautical engineer and former test pilot. After a career spent designing lightweight and collapsible undercarriages for aircraft such as the Spitfire, he considered applying his knowledge to another industry. During a visit from his daughter, he noticed how much she was struggling with his first grandchild’s traditional pushchair. Using his knowledge from the aeronautical industry, he created the first ever collapsible pushchair.

Maclaren had already registered several patents during his career, both individually, as part of Maclaren Undercarriages and as part of Maclaren Andrews, the company he formed. However, as you can see from the graph, once Maclaren realised the potential of applying the engineering of the aeronautical industry to that of childcare, it resulted in a complete change of direction for the company.

Temper foam

“Memory foam” via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Aircraft cushion safety
What went wrong/right:
Temper foam, also known as memory foam, was first sold in mattresses and other cushions by American brand Tempur-Pedic in 2002. However, the temper foam was originally developed by NASA 36 years earlier in order to improve safety of aircraft cushions.

Made from polyurethane and various other chemicals to increase its density and elasticity, temper foam is created by injecting gas into the polymer matrix. This gives the foam a structure which matches any pressure against it and springs the foam back into the original shape. The foam was later used for medical equipment such as x-ray table pads and helmet liners but it was in the 80s that it was released to the public as a more comfortable alternative to spring mattresses.


Original spark: Refrigerants
What went wrong/right:
Teflon was inadvertently discovered by Roy Plunkett (1910–1944), a DuPont chemist, when he was researching non-toxic alternatives to refrigerants such as sulphur dioxide and ammonia. Plunkett and his assistant were experimenting with tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) and stored the gas in small cylinders. When he came to open the pressurised cylinder of TFE, nothing came out, even though it seemed heavy. After resorting to cutting open the cylinder, they discovered the gas inside had polymerised into a white powder resin consisting of polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). After experimentation, they discovered some of its unique properties, it was non- corrosive, chemically stable, very slippery and had a very high melting point.

Teflon was first patented in the 1950s. Initially used to military and industrial applications, it wasn’t until the 60s that it started to be used for non-stick pans and other cooking utensils.


Mongolian Soldier Lighting A Firework Rocket via Wiki Commons

Original spark: The elixir of eternal life
What went wrong/right:
Gunpowder, often listed as one of the four greatest inventions in Chinese history, was first used by 9th century Taoist alchemists in experiments to try and find an elixir for immortality. Over the centuries, the explosive properties of gunpowder were discovered and the use of gunpowder spread rapidly. While mainly used for fireworks originally, gunpowder became popular in the 15th century for artillery and firearms and dominated European warfare by the 17th century.

Play doh

Original spark: Wallpaper cleaner
What went wrong/right:
Play doh was first developed by Kutol, a soap manufacturer, during a period of downturn. One Kutol employee, Noah McVicker, created a putty like substance consisting of flour, water, boric acid, mineral oil and salt which the company decided to market as wallpaper cleaner.

Due to the common presence of soot on the walls from the ubiquitous coal fires of the time, the product initially did very well. Sales started to fall however as more and more people switched to vinyl wallpaper. After World War II, McVicker’s nephew Joseph joined the company and learned that the cleaner was good for modelling clay in schools. The modelling clay previously used in schools was too hard, especially for smaller children, whereas the wallpaper putty was exceptionally malleable. He started selling it to schools and renamed the product Play Doh.

Duct tape

An Apollo rover making use of duct tape on the moon via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Securing ammunition
What went wrong/right:
Duct tape, originally known as duck tape due to the dark green waterproof nature of a duck, was developed slowly after various developments using duck cloth. Before its invention, duck cloth was used for a wide range of purposes including strengthening shoes, securing steel cables and bandages. During World War II a growing concern that the seals for ammunition boxes were not effective and could cost soldiers precious time led Johnson & Johnson to develop a new, waterproof adhesive tape designed to be ripped by hand. It didn’t take long to realise that while the tape wasn’t good for sealing the ammunition boxes it was good for repairing things such as jeeps, guns and aircrafts.

Consumers started to use the tape for sealing air conditioning ducts after the war, prompting a colour change from a military green matching the ammunition boxes to grey, to match the ducts, hence the name duct tape.

Although it is now prohibited for air conditioning seals due to the toxic smoke and flammability, it is widely used by consumers for fixing pretty much any object.

As the famous saying goes:

“If you can’t fix it with duct tape you haven’t used enough”.

MRI Scanner

Original spark: Video games
What went wrong/right:
Doug Dietz had been designing MRI scanners for 20 years when he noticed that the process was causing younger children distress during scans. In order to relieve their anxiety, he incorporated an entertainment element to his MRI scanner to transport patients to a virtual world where they could play games amid calming decorations.

In one of the games, children must lie upside down in a virtual canoe and are told to hold still otherwise the canoe will start to rock and fish will jump on them. The distractions, combined with the challenges increase the chances of obtaining a successful scan.

Conveyor belt

Conveyor belt sushi bar. Photo taken by Kim Kayland via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Moving luggage and goods
What went wrong/right:
Conveyor belts are still used in transportation of luggage and goods, typically you find them in airports or factories but in Japan the conveyor belt is now used predominantly in sushi restaurants. When restaurant manager Yoshiaki Shiraishi (1914–2001) was having problems managing his sushi restaurant himself and lacking the funds for more staff, he turned to other means. The idea to use conveyor belts was taken from the transportation of beer bottles in the Asahi brewery. He opened the first conveyor belt sushi restaurant in 1958 and the idea eventually spread to become virtually synonymous with the image of sushi restaurants.

Bubble wrap

Original spark: Textured wallpaper
What went wrong/right:
Sealed Air Corporation founders Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes attempted to create a textured wallpaper by sealing two shower curtains together with air bubbles captured in between. When this shockingly didn’t take off, they decided to market it as a means of insulating a greenhouse. However, they quickly realised that the bubble wrap didn’t create an insulating effect.

After this new setback, Fielding and Chavannes weren’t quite sure what to do with it. Fortunately, IBM had just released a new computer and were looking for a way to protect it during transportation. A staff member at Sealed Air thought that the bubble wrap perhaps make a good protective material and sold it to the computer maker. IBM started buying bubble wrap regularly off them and ultimately became Sealed Air’s first client for Bubble Wrap. Over £300 million worth of bubble wrap is now sold each year.

Disposable tissues

This is a picture of the original KLEENEX trademark filed in 192 via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Gas mask filters
What went wrong/right:
Personal care brand Kimberly Clark developed paper filters for gas masks and surgical cotton for the US Army during World War I. After the war ended the paper was adapted to be used as sanitary towels, marketed as Kotex. However, this wasn’t popular in the 1920s so subsequent research began to create a new formula to provide thinner, softer sheets to be used as disposable cleansing tissue for removing make up. This became very popular later in the 20s and many actors promoted the use of Kimberly Clark’s new brand, Kleenex.

The real breakthrough however came in the same decade when Kimberly Clark’s head researcher was suffering from hay fever and reached for a Kleenex instead of using a handkerchief. Kimberly Clark began advertising Kleenex as a disposable handkerchief and the company’s sales doubled.

Listerine Mouthwash

Old Listerine bottle, glass with paper label “Lambert Pharmacal Company” via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Operating theatre disinfectant
What went wrong/right:
Listerine was invented by the American chemist Joseph Lawrence and named after pioneering British surgeon Joseph Lister and marketed by Johnson & Johnson. As its namesake, Listerine was developed to promote the benefits of sterilisation but despite being developed as a disinfectant for operating theatres, Listerine was quickly marketed for a number of uses, including floor cleaner.

It wasn’t until studies discovered that it was also effective at removing germs in the mouth that it was marketed to dentists, simultaneously creating both a social problem (bad breath) and also a cure.


Original spark: Pesticide
What went wrong/right:
Warfarin, also known by the brand name Coumadin, is a medicine used to reduce blood clots. Originally developed in the 30s by the Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), hence the name, the drug was developed when a farmer visited a laboratory demanding to know what had killed his cow. He had brought with him a bottle of blood which seemingly could not be coagulated; the professor, Karl Paul, managed to isolate the anticoagulant factor in the blood.

He began to sell this as a pesticide against mice and rats until, after a few more years of research, it became evident that coumerin is useful in reducing blood clots in humans and it was developed into a medicine useful for heart and other vascular diseases.

Coca Cola

Coca-Cola Advertisement, 1886 via Wiki Commons

Original spark: Nerve tonic
What went wrong/right:
Coca Cola was invented by John Pemberton, a wounded war veteran seeking a substitute for the morphine he had become addicted to during his convalescence. After being given a French made medicinal drink called Vin Mariana which was a mixture of wine and cocaine, he created his own version using alcohol, cola nut and coca — the plant cocaine is derived from. When the local government introduced legislation to outlaw alcohol, Pemberton removed the alcohol and marketed his product as a panacea for a wide range of conditions, from his own morphine addiction to impotence.




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