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Famous Inventions That Started as Something Else

Inventions don’t always turn out the way we anticipate. For innovators, the application of original ideas can look much different than even they imagined.

Whether it’s a pharmaceutical drug curing an alternate disease or a product evolving to address an unanticipated problem, inventions can take on a life of their own.

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Famous Inventions That Started as Something Else

  1. 1. Famous Innovations That Started as Something Else
  2. 2. In 1819, Napoleon Bonaparte wanted to create a system of code his men could use to communicate silently and in the dark. Captain Charles Barbier, a French army officer, developed “night writing,” a method that used two columns of up to six dots to denote a character. The army promptly rejected the idea as too complicated. Two years later, Barbier demonstrated his system to the National Institute for Blind Youth in Paris. One student, 15-year old Louis Braille, realized Barbier’s 12-dot matrix was too large to be felt in a single touch. Barbier cut the matrix in half and developed the Braille system. Braille
  3. 3. Thomas Edison first envisioned the phonograph as a simple dictation device that would turn voice into text. While working with his assistants to turn paper strips into recorded telegraph messages in 1877, Edison had an idea. That same night, the crew created the “talking machine”— a crude device that used a needle to etch indentations into paper based off sound vibrations. When pulled back through the device, those indentations reproduced the original sound. But recording sound through the telephone proved too complicated, so Edison moved to plan B: use the invention as a way for a boss to dictate letters to his secretary. When this failed to catch on, Edison set out to use the technology to make a talking doll. Since kids are rough on toys and Edison’s cylinder wasn’t sturdy enough to survive their drops, this was an abject failure, too. After decades of tinkering and innovation, Edison introduced the Perfected Phonograph, which used wax cylinders to record sound. And this version, which proved successful at recording and playing music, finally caught on as a commercial hit. Phonograph
  4. 4. In 1994, a drug that treated a benign prostate enlargement hit the market. That drug was called Proscar and had a noticeable side effect: the regrowth of hair in bald men. The drug’s manufacturer, Merck, spent the next five years testing the drug as a treatment for thinning hair and baldness. After gaining FDA approval for the hair-loss treatment, Merck relaunched the drug as Propecia, which has become synonymous with treatment for male pattern baldness. Propecia
  5. 5. Don McPherson, a glass scientist, created lenses to protect surgeons’ eyes from lasers and help them differentiate human tissue. Quite serendipitously, he found another use for them. While playing Ultimate Frisbee back in 2002, he lent a pair of the glasses to a colorblind friend. He didn’t expect the response he got. “I see orange cones. I’ve never seen them before,” his friend said. Intrigued, McPherson set out to study colorblindness and tinker with his product. He applied for a grant from the National Institutes of Health in 2005, where he ended up working alongside vision scientists, a mathematician, and a computer scientist named Andrew Schmeder. Alongside these innovators, McPherson successfully created glasses that allowed people with colorblindness to see the full spectrum. With the help of Tony Dykes, a business development director at a technology startup and former Silicon Valley lawyer, he launched Enchroma in 2012 to market and sell the glasses. Enchroma Glasses
  6. 6. In the mid-2000s, NASA saw a problem: The agency had different websites devoted to different departments, all built and managed differently. In 2008, NASA set out to codify its site by providing a standard set of tools and methods for its web developers. What resulted was Nebula, a cloud-based platform that provided NASA developers, researchers, and scientists with a wide range of services to access and manage the large quantities of data the Agency accumulated every day. To use 2017 speak—the agency created a huge cloud-based storage system. But this is not where the story ends. When Texas-based Rackspace, a cloud technology and software company, saw the technology, it partnered with NASA to form OpenStack, an open-source software that has attracted a huge community: Nearly 2,500 independent developers and 150 companies are a part of it, including AT&T, Dell, and Intel. OpenStack Cloud Computing Platform
  7. 7. In 1998, the brains behind PayPal launched Confinity, which delivered security software for handheld devices such as PalmPilots. The basic idea behind it, according to Max Levchin, a founder of PayPal, was “I can pay you [and] you can pay me with these kind of electronic IOUs that lived on your PalmPilot.” To explain his concept to people who didn’t own a PalmPilot, Levchin built a live demo that he describes as just sitting “kind of in a corner” of the Confinity website. But over time, he noticed a growing number of people paying each other through the web demo. “After a little bit of digging, [I] realized that most of them came through this website called eBay,” Levchin said. After dragging his feet a few months, attempting to shut down the use of his payment system in eBay and grow his PalmPilot program, Levchin finally (reluctantly) pivoted to the web-based payment platform we all know of as PayPal. PayPal
  8. 8. The photo-sharing site used by billions around the world didn’t start as the easy-to-use social platform most of us know and love. Rather, it started as Burbn. In early 2010, Kevin Systrom attempted to capitalize on the latest craze of location-based apps spearheaded by Foursquare. He developed Burbn, an iPhone app that used location technology to allow users to check in at a particular location, make plans for future check-ins, earn points for hanging out with friends, and post pictures of the meet-ups. Systrom soon found that rather than focusing on the location itself, users simply wanted to share their photos. Upon looking at the analytics, Systrom teamed up with another developer, Mike Krieger, to build a photo- sharing platform. They called it Instagram. Instagram
  9. 9. If it were up to founders Steve Chen, Jawed Karim, and Chad Hurley, you’d be using YouTube to find a significant other. When the founders registered the domain on February 14, 2005, they had a specific vision: single people making videos introducing themselves and saying what they were looking for. Despite their catchy slogan—”Tune In, Hook Up”—the concept didn’t catch on. Five days after launching the site, no one had uploaded a single video. “We were so desperate for some actual dating videos, whatever that even means, that we turned to the website any desperate person would turn to, Craigslist,” said YouTube co-founder Steve Chen, who offered any willing person $20 to upload a dating video. But, realizing they had developed a method of easily uploading and sharing video, the founding trio scrapped the dating idea and started uploading random videos, everything from days spent at the zoo to airplanes taking off. The site, too, started to take off and was acquired by Google for more than $1 billion in 2006. YouTube
  10. 10. In 2009, Ben Silbermann, Paul Sciarra, and Vikram Bhaskaran set out to revolutionize the retail world. Their app, Tote, was meant to turn mobile phones into a one-stop-shop outlet by allowing users to save their favorite items, alert them when clothes went on sale, buy items through the app, and point them to nearby stores. There was one catch: Mobile payments weren’t as sophisticated as they are today. Without a reliable payment option, users weren’t using Tote to purchase items. Rather, they were creating collections of “favorite” items to share with their friends. Picking up on this trend, Silbermann and his partners pivoted the app and created Pinterest. Pinterest