Good Inventions That Took an Evil Frankensteinian Turn

By Chris Mills on at

Inventors are the lifeblood of technological progress -- without them, we'd still be stuck gorging on raw meat, jerking off to cave-painting porn. But sometimes, an innocent invention can be taken for nefarious means, and take our whole species backwards.


1. Spam

"FREE V1agrA! Get £££s!! in PPI claims. Use this ancient Chinese unicorn-sperm trick to earn thousands a week from home." This is just a small (and mostly accurate) sample from a typical email inbox on any given day. Spam is a genuine pandemic, causing untold minor irritation and over-use of the delete button all round the world. Believe it or not, though, it was invented for a relatively good cause.

Back in 1978, a computer salesman by the name of Gary Thuerk wanted to advertise a demo of new machines by his company, Digital Equipment Corporation (now part of HP). Since mailing out hundreds of invitations would blow his budget, he decided to email people using the internet's predecessor, ARPAnet. Rather than sending out individual emails, though, he drafted one message and bombarded his 600-strong contact list with it. And thus, the scourge of the internet was born.

And yes, Mr Thuerk does have a "no junk mail" sticker on his letterbox.


2. The Special Theory of Relativity 

It's perhaps the most famous and least-understood equation in the world. Einstein's special theory of relativity was one of the most important breakthroughs in theoretical physics, but it was also one of the key ingredients in building the nuclear bomb.

The atomic bomb involves the release of a large amount of energy from a small amount of matter -- the ultimate demonstration of Einstein's principle, that energy equals mass times the speed of light squared. Einstein was a pacifist, and although he aided and abetted the production of the atomic bomb for preventative means, he was strongly against the actual, y'know, use of it against Japan.


3. The Pop-Up

Pop-up ads might appear to be designed purely to piss the world off, but their beginnings were actually pretty innocent. The groundwork was laid when Java's command was coded, which allows a piece of javascript to call a new browser window to open -- the pop-up.

This idea was seized up, and then patented by a pornographer-turned-patent-troll called Brian Shuster, who we can thank for pioneering IP hoarding as well as turning innocent porn sites into javascript-infested-pop-up hell.


4. Ecstasy

The ubiquitous party drug MDMA, much better known as ecstasy, wasn't invented with the express purpose of getting all bug-eyed at underground glow-stick raves; rather, an incredibly serious German scientist by the name of Anton Kollisch came up with the compound in 1912, intending it to be a medicine to prevent blood clots.

It was filed, and next revisited in 1970s US, where a Californian psychiatrist tried using MDMA in his practices; it seemed to work, and the practice of using it spread throughout the profession. Inevitably for any good drug with whacky side-effects, it spread to the nightclub-frequenting members of society, and the rest, as they say, is history.


5. Nokia Ringtone

Dee-dee-du-du, dee-dee-du-du, dee-dee-du-du-duuuuum. That's the sound of the world's most annoying ringtone -- the Nokia Tune, the 8-bit interruptor in chief, scourge of civilised and sane society the world over.

However, this ode to mobile phone dominance had rather less sinister origins. The riff's actually the work of Spanish composer Francisco Tarrega. The tune's found in his 1902 work Grand Vals, a rather waltz that has now been permanently ruined by Nokia (and, because it's so old, there are no royalties for Nokia to worry about). Some estimates reckon the ringtone's played 1.8 billion times per day. Thanks, guys.

Image credit: Nuclear bomb, e=mc2, Ecstasy from Shutterstock, Pop-up from Wikimedia Commons

This week, we're celebrating unsung heroes and the people who dared to dream big, with The Dreamers. Bookmark this page for all related stories, or contact us here with tips.