In 1953, in San Diego, California, a group of engineers from a small company called Rocket Chemical Company created a product meant to be used as an anticorrosive in the aerospace industry.
The name of the product refers to “Water Displacement” and the number 40 refers to the amount of tries they made until the formula worked. They must have been really good at what they were doing, because almost 70 years later the formula is still in use and hasn’t been surpassed.
WD-40 first commercial use was to protect the exterior of the American missile, Atlas, from corrosion. (This rocket was built to deliver nuclear war-heads to intercontinental destinations and was later used to launch the Agena target vehicle, for the astronauts in the Gemini capsule to rendezvous and dock with.).
The product worked so well that some employees soon started taking home some cans for their personal use. It wasn’t until a few years later when the CEO of the company had the brilliant idea of bottling the liquid in aerosol cans and selling it to the public.
From then on, the company grew exponentially, and the uses given to their product increased as well. Consumers rapidly discovered hundreds of new applications, some of them quite far away from the original intention.
The secret lies in the decision the company took. Contrary to usual, they decided not to patent their product. Doing so would have required that they submit the recipe. The patent would last only for a few years and after the expiration date, anyone could make and sell it without problems.
A secret so well kept that seven decades later no-one has been able to figure it out.