12 More Things Invented By Accident

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BOSTON (MainStreet) -- A while back, we wrote of the many products invented by accident -- a rundown of the mistakes and mishaps that proved fortuitous for inventors.

With thanks to the many readers who wrote in with additional suggestions on this theme, we've expanded our earlier tally with a dozen more examples of how the occasional twist of fate can prove to be a happy accident for consumers and companies:


 

Ivory Soap

Word association: "soap."

A great many of you would probably blurt out "Ivory" during such a quiz. That classic brand, known by the slogan "the soap that floats," came about thanks to an accident.

The popular telling of the origin has it that a worker for Procter & Gamble (Stock Quote: PG) in 1879 make the mistake of leaving one of the industrial blenders running while he went off on his lunch break.

The resulting product looked OK, and the extra air whipped into the bars of soap wasn't immediately noticeable. Afraid he would lose his job, the worker let the shipment roll off the assembly line without calling attention to his error.

The gig was soon up, but in a good way. Company executives were puzzled when customers started writing laudatory letters, praising the new variety of soap that would float in the bath (rather that sinking, hidden beneath the water) and offered a superior alternative to soap on a rope.

Some internal detective work eventually uncovered the worker's brilliant mistake, and that lunchtime error was integrated into the manufacturing process, as it still is today.

 

Potato chips

A grumpy chef gave birth to one of the world's most popular snack foods.

In 1853, Native American George Crum was working the line at a Saratoga Springs resort when a customer ticked him off by complaining that the french fries he served were too thick.

In a spiteful gesture, the chef made a batch in which the potato pieces were so thin they would be both a sarcastic gesture and -- so he thought -- inedible.

Instead, the crunchy treats drew a rave review and other diners wanted a similar serving. The restaurant's owners, elated by the dining room buzz, added these chips of potato to the menu as a signature dish. As "Saratoga Chips" gained acclaim, Crum parlayed his notoriety into opening his own restaurant.

Within a few years, distributors were marketing the snack in Ohio and throughout New England. National potato chip popularity followed in the 1920s thanks to the efforts of salesman Herman Lay (as in Lay's potato chips) who sold them throughout the South from his car.

The 1926 invention of a chip bag made from wax paper (by potato chip factory owner Laura Scudder) kept the contents fresh enough to make national distribution a reality.

 

Popsicles

As simple as they may seem, even the icy treat known as the popsicle required an accidental inventor, in this case an 11-year-old boy from San Francisco.

In 1905, the young Frank Epperson was stirring a powdered drink mix when he grew distracted and wandered off, leaving his soda pop creation, mixing stick still dunked, outside on his porch.

Unseasonably cold weather froze the drink overnight, leaving a fruit-flavored ice treat. The "Epsicle," patented years later, was eventually renamed. By 1928 Epperson had pocketed royalties on more than 60 million "popsicles" thanks to a distribution deal with the Joe Lowe Co. of New York.

Since 1989, Good Humor, a subsidiary of Unilever (Stock Quote: UL), has owned the rights to officially branded Popsicles.

 

Insulin

The discovery that led to this life-saving medicine for diabetics is not a tale you'll want to read while munching on lunch.

While it took 1923-era Nobel Prize-winning work by a Canadian doctor and professor, Frederick Banting and John MacLeod, to set the stage for insulin's use as a modern pharmaceutical, the catalyst for their work goes back to an accidental discovery by German physicians in 1889.

Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski were studying digestion in a dog and removed its pancreas. As the days proceeded they noticed that, post-excision, the canine's urine was attracting flies.

Curious, they uncovered that the dog urine had an unusually high level of sugar, which in turn was attracting the insects. They concluded that removing the pancreas led to an onset of diabetes and deduced that the organ must be somehow regulating sugar levels. Further research revealed that a pancreas accomplishes that task by releasing insulin.

 

Mauve

Mauve, that pretty shade of purple, was actually created during a failed pharmacology experiment.

In 1856, 18-year-old chemist William Henry Perkin of the U.K. was trying to create a medicinal treatment for the mosquito-borne disease malaria.

His attempt to craft an artificial form of quinine didn't go quite as expected. But the residue from an experiment with coal tar led Perkins to an entirely new business venture. The lilac-colored dye he extracted proved well-suited for fabrics, including silk, and sparked a Victorian-era fashion sensation embraced by royalty. It remains popular to this day and set the stage for the many artificial dyes that would go on to be perfected for a wide spectrum of colors.

In Simon Garfield's Mauve: How One Man Invented a Color That Changed the World (W.W. Norton & Co., 2002), Perkins is credited for bringing a needed dose of excitement to the field of organic chemistry that, in turn, led to advancements in medicine, consumer goods (cosmetics and perfume) and industrial uses (food flavoring, explosives and bleaching agents).

 

Super Glue

Aptly named, this incredibly sticky adhesive was stumbled upon by Dr. Harry Coover during his time spent on military research.

According to a biography published by MIT's School of Engineering, Coover was part of a team tasked by the government during World War II to create a type of gun sight forged from an experimental form of clear plastic. That project was abandoned because the substances, cyanoacrylates, were ridiculously sticky and would affix itself to any surface they came in contact with, using any layer of moisture to create a tight, unbudging bond. Too difficult to work with, the concept was abandoned.

Later, working at Eastman-Kodak's chemical division, Coover returned to cyanoacrylates for his work on aviation products, impressed by the fact the substance required no heat or pressure to work its adhesive magic. After growing frustrated yet again that everything in his lab kept getting stuck together, inspiration struck. He got a patent for "Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Compositions," better known by the tell-all name "Super Glue."

In 1958, his company began marketing the tube of miracle glue under the brand name Eastman 910.

Beyond fixing shattered tea cups, cyanoacrylates were later used to seal and treat soldiers' wounds during the Vietnam War. The substance, later gaining FDA approval, is also used during surgical procedures.

 

 

Fingerprint "fuming"

Super Glue plays a big role in another feat of invention-by-mistake, this time in the use of fingerprinting as a crime-solving technique.

Fingerprinting itself dates back centuries, and scientists as far back as the 17th century were cataloging unique features in geometric skin grooves.

We can't vouch for the authenticity of this often-told origin story, but it is said that a cracked fish tank at a Japanese crime lab added a wrinkle to the forensic science of gathering fingerprints: Repairing the tank with Super Glue, made from the cyanoacrylates invented by the aforementioned Dr. Harry Coover, police officers discovered that the glue fumes reacted to the oily fingerprints smudged all over the glass, hardening them into a visible relief. "Super glue fuming" has added yet another tool for crime investigators.

 

Teflon

The non-stick coating common on many pots, pans and baking sheets was invented unintentionally by Roy Plunkett of Kinetic Chemicals in 1938.

Plunkett, a chemist, was trying to make a form of refrigerant when he realized that his chemical creation had created a heat-resistant powder that proved to be an incredible lubricant.

In the 1950s, French engineer Marc Gregoire -- prompted by a suggestion from his wife -- created the first Teflon-coated pan.

 

CorningWare

The selling point of CorningWare is its ability to withstand tremendous heat, moving safely from an oven to stovetop burner as needed.

Donald Stookey, a researcher at what was then Corning Glass Works, didn't set out to make cookware. His expertise was with special types of glass that exhibited photosensitive properties. One product he pioneered, for example: photochromic sunglasses lenses that get darker or lighter depending on ambient light. He was also on a team at Corning contracted by the U.S. government on a project, later abandoned, to create class coins to replace metal currency.

In 1953, Stookey was working with a substance called FotoForm glass when he made a game-changing mistake that would benefit Corning (Stock Quote: GLW) for decades to come: He had intended to heat a piece of glass he was working with to 600 degrees Celsius, but the furnace blasted out 900 degrees of heat. At that temperature the glass should have melted, but it didn't. In fact, there was no apparent damage, except for the fact it turned white.

In a 1986 interview with The Associated Press, Stookey recalled that day.

"I took it out [of the furnace] as fast as I could with a pair of tongs," he said. "The tongs slipped and it fell on the floor. The thing bounced and it sounded like a piece of steel bouncing. So, I figured something different must have happened."

That creation, a glass-ceramic material named pyroceram, was adapted for cooking use to take full advantage of its ability to withstand intense temperature changes. CorningWare hit store shelves in 1958.

 

Post-it Notes

A staple of office supply closets everywhere, the Post-it Note had an inauspicious start.

In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a senior scientist for 3M (Stock Quote: MMM), was working on a project to create a variety of industrial-strength adhesives. One effort failed miserably and wound up being an exceptionally weak, barely sticky film.

What was intriguing, however, is that the substance was easy to remove, reusable and left no sticky after-effects. It seemed to be perfect for some use, although no one at the time could say what that might be.

A few years later, 3M's R&D department experimented with the weak adhesive as a bulletin board substitute for thumbtacks or tape -- in their version plain pieces of paper were affixed to a board covered with the sticky substance. There continued to be no consensus as to marketability.

A eureka moment came in 1974 when Art Fry, also a 3M scientist, was looking for something he could affix to the pages of his church hymnal as a bookmark.

Recalling Silver's creation, he gave it a try and found that pieces of paper dabbed with the barely sticky goo worked perfectly,

Executives at the company still were not impressed, and it took until they saw how many of their own employees loved the product before they were convinced to bring the tiny notes to market.

 

Cellophane wrap

Back in in 1900, Swiss chemist Jaques Brandenberger was inspired by a spilled glass of red wine to design a liquid-repelling, stain-resistant tablecloth for restaurants.

The tablecloth proved harder to make than it sounded, but Brandenberger was intrigued by the plastic coating that peeled off in one failed attempt.

For most of the next decade, the chemist continued to tinker with the formula that created this clear, thin film. In 1912, he patented the material and built a plant to make it under the name cellophane.

Among his first customers was the Whitman's candy company, which used cellophane to wrap, seal and protect its boxes of Whitman's Samplers. Cellophane gained global acceptance when DuPont (Stock Quote: DD) began making a version in the 1920s.

 

Pacemaker implants

You, or a loved one, may be alive today because an engineer grabbed the wrong part one day.

In 1956, Wilson Greatbatch, an assistant professor of engineering at the University of Buffalo, was building a device that could record heart rhythms.

Unwittingly grabbing a wrong part, his finished creation didn't record heart sounds, but rather emitted a series of electrical pulses that resembled those rhythms.

Greatbatch, who describes his invention in The Making of the Pacemaker: Celebrating a Life-Saving Invention (Prometheus Books, 2001), had an immediate inkling as to what the device might be capable of. Implanting it into a dog, he confirmed that the pulses could regulate a living heartbeat.

Subsequent research perfected the design that would become the first implantable pacemaker for heart patients.

Greatbatch passed away in September at the age of 92. More than a half-million pacemakers are implanted every year.

 

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