WD-40 lubricates ideas

What do oil and ideas have in common?

The world runs on both, and have gone to war over both, and both can be messy, but there’s more to it than that.

What unites them is that both end products are a reiteration and refinement of a crude original. And WD-40 is the ultimate example of this.

WD-40 greasing an Atlas missile all the way to Moscow

Ends and ways

I have yet to meet a man who doesn’t love WD-40 – cheap, widely available and it does the job of greasing and protecting your stuff.

The end product is great, but it took a long time to get there – 40 attempts in fact.

WD-40 is what producer types call “on the nose“: its name is exactly what it is, “water displacement – 40th attempt”.

The original idea was to come up with an oil that was cheap, safe to use and could protect nuclear missiles against rust. Luckily, some of the rocket engineers saw the potential beyond the original application of greasing an atomic payload and started using it at home (though I hope that’s all they took back from the office).

Good enough v the right stuff

Norm Larsen of the Rocket Chemical Company created wanted to produce something that would serve its purpose well, but he didn’t take the first, or even first dozen, iterations of his formula.

He kept testing and refining until he got what he really wanted,  not what was good enough. The WD-40 company, as his firm was renamed, now has sales of $320 million each year.

Ideas are like that. The first may give you the inspiration for what you want to do, but to make it widely accepted it must be tested and refined until you get it right.

And if you’re lucky you won’t have to try 40 times.

By Jonathan Richardson

Jonathan Richardson is a writer and the editor of Considered Words.

He's worked as a journalist, writer and analyst for organisations including the BBC and Which? He's also written for the stage in Cambridge, radio and sketches at the Edinburgh festival.

He's now a freelance writer and data analyst.

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