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The Unusual Origins of Things We See Every Day

The Unusual Origins of Things We See Every Day

Accidents happen—and sometimes, that’s a wonderful thing. Our world is full of circuitous evolutions, strange innovations, and happy accidents, all of which inform our daily surroundings. Here are some of the unusual origins of things we see every day—on land, in the water, and even in the sky. They might even have you experimenting at the workbench yourself.

Vaseline: Getting Good From Goo

There’s no telling what you can get by crossing leftovers and byproducts with desperation and ingenuity. Chemist Robert Chesebrough found that out for himself when he was hustling to keep his whale-kerosene delivery service from losing market share to upstart petroleum products. Looking to enter the oil business himself, he instead found himself fascinated by the viscous, wax-like residue on drilling rods, which brought operations to a halt. As a chemist, filtering and clarifying this “rod wax” led to the creation of lighter and more pleasant petroleum jelly, which we know now as Vaseline, a product with a multitude of uses.

Helicopters: Bamboo Toys Going Big-Time

There’s not much that eyeglasses, fireworks, and your morning news traffic report would have in common, but if they do, it’s that none of them would be possible without the developments of ancient China. Tiny bamboo rotor-like objects, originally intended as mere children’s toys, would spin and glide through the air, first elucidating the principle of modern rotorcraft for further development. More ideas for helicopters, including one from none other than Leonardo da Vinci, would inform the final design we’ve come to know since 1936.

Duck, Duct, Goose

The pedants among us are swift to correct anyone who refers to duct tape, that silvery adhesive that color-coordinates perfectly with ductwork, as “duck tape.” The pedants are right—and wrong. Duct tape has its origins in the U.S. Navy, where it arose as the solution to a uniquely maritime dilemma: the infiltration of water into boxes of military ordnance. The way water rolled off the tape—like water off a duck’s back, as the old saying goes—led to the tape getting the cute appellation of “duck tape.” As the production made its way into civilian use following World War II, its aptness for HVAC applications gave it the “duct tape” name we all know, love, and relentlessly correct for, but its role in keeping weapons dry is certainly among the most unusual origins of things we see every day.

You Can Stand Under My Umbrella…If It’s Sunny

Would you believe the umbrella has its birth not in rainy England but in the arid climes of modern-day Iraq? Mesopotamian cultures devised the original umbrellas not to shield from rain, which was in short supply in the once-Fertile Crescent, but rather from oppressive sunlight. Today, sun-specific bumbershoots are better known as parasols, from the French “for the sun,” while umbrellas as we know them today keep us dry.