Finding the federal footprints - from fiber optics to frying pans

When women get their haired ``permed,'' they should tip their hairdressers but thank the government. The technology was developed by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in the 1930s and '40s, when researchers were studying the structure and properties of hair protein.

Government research lands in the most unusual places - nonstick frying pans, telephone lines, coffee cups, running shoes, to name a few. Such spinoffs from the research lab to the consumer market are obviously not the primary goal for government research, but they are a nice byproduct. Below are a smattering of spinoffs:

Scratch-resistant sunglasses. In trying to improve the water purification system for spacecraft, a NASA scientist discovered that putting a thin plastic coating on another plastic sheet made the surface harder and more scratch resistant. Foster Grant has made 5 million pair of sunglasses (and $75 million in sales) using that technology. The glasses, which are said to last 10 times longer than an ordinary pair, are called ``Space Tech.''

Freezed-dried coffee. NIH scientists developed the process to preserve protein solutions for lab work in 1909. It didn't get into coffee cups until the 1960s.

Fiber optics. NIH scientists developed flexible endoscopes (instruments that can look into the body's cavities) for diagnostic purposes in the 1950s. Fiber optics is now revolutionalizing the telephone industry with quieter lines that can carry far more information than standard copper cable - not just voice but data and video information as well.

Running shoes. In the 1960s, NASA developed a new material for the boots of moon-walking astronauts. It was more shock absorbant, stable, ventilated than other materials. The astronauts liked them, and Kangaroos USA hopes that ordinary earth walkers, runners, and aerobics exercisers will like them too. The shoes, which the company says reduces foot fatigue, are coming on line. No guarantee you'll win the race, though.

Fishing nets. NASA developed a safety net for the space shuttle crew, and now an American company is making fishing nets commercially for the first time in nearly 20 years. The new fibers and twisting techniques produce a dense, streamlined net that sinks rapidly.

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