Amanda Foreman, in the Wall Street Journal, describes a list of inventions that followed a zigzagging path:
In 1875, Thomas Edison invented the electric pen. It was a motorized stylus that worked like a stencil: it could punch words through a stack of up to 100 pages. This was supposed to replace copying, which back then was really time consuming. Edison said “There is more money in this than telegraphy.” But users hated it; it was almost impossible to use.
The zigzag: In the 1890s, tattoo artists started using the pen technology for the first electric tattoo needle.
In 1860, the first mechanical carpet brush was invented. But it was horrible; it just threw dust and dirt up into the air. In 1898, John Thurman of St. Louis invented a gas-powered carpet cleaner with a canvas bag, designed to catch the dust as it was thrown up into the air. This idea turned out to be even worse; huge clouds of dust filled the room.
Hubert Cecil Booth learned about Thurman’s invention, and had the idea of turning it into a sucking mechanism instead of a blowing mechanism. This was the first vacuum cleaner.
And check out this zigzag: Thurman’s gas-powered blower became the technology behind the leaf blower.
It’s the path to all great inventions: The zigzag that transforms the original idea into something completely different.