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Published on Aug 20, 2013 in Featured Articles, News, North America

Accidental Inventions

Inventors don’t always hit the target they’re aiming at. In fact, a great many inventions have come about when an inventor is aiming at a different target altogether. Below are some of the top inventions that came about as a result of looking for something completely different, or as a result of someone’s observation.

Botox: In 1987 Alastair and Jean Carruthers were using small doses of a deadly toxin to treat eyelid spasms and other eye-muscle disorders. They noticed that, when using their toxin, wrinkles disappeared. Botox was born.

Brandy: In the 16th century a Dutch shipmaster used heat to try and concentrate wine so that it would make the wine easier to transport. He then would use water to reconstitute the wine at his destination port. However, the concentrated wine was better than the original and it quickly became popular. Known as burnt wine or brandewijn in Dutch, brandy has been a hit ever since.

Chewing Gum: In 1870 Thomas Adams was experimenting with chicle, the sap from a South American tree, in an effort to find a substitute for rubber. He didn’t find a rubber substitute, but when he put a piece of this substance in his mouth he liked it and Adams New York No. 1 became the first mass-produced chewing gum in the world.

potato_chips-widePotato chips: In 1853 chef George Crum at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York was a well know chef. However, one night a guest complained about Crum’s fried potatoes, finding them too tick, bland, and soggy. Crum was irritated and decided to get back at the guest by slicing paper-thin potatoes, frying them until they would shatter when a fork tried to pick up a slice, and then over-salting his creation. The guest loved it and ordered a second serving! Saratoga Chips became the hit of New England.

Viagra: In 1992 Pfizer was testing a pill for angina in a small Welsh hamlet. It didn’t fight angina but the men in the study had no complaint. Scientists then switched gears and Viagra was now used for an entirely different purpose.

Anesthesia: In 1844 Horace Wells was a dentist who would use nitrous oxide as a party toy, making people laugh at various social events. On one occasion, when he took too much of the gas himself, he gashed his leg but didn’t feel anything. Nitrous oxide was shortly thereafter used as an early form of anesthesia.

Penicillin: In 1928 Alexander Fleming was conducting an experiment on bacteria when he had to leave for vacation halfway through. He left the petri dish experiment in his lab sink and, when he returned, noticed that the bacteria has taken over the plate except for a small area where mold had formed. This led to the discovery of penicillin.

Post-it notes: In 1968 a chemist for the 3M company was looking for a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry made of acrylic microspheres. However, the adhesive was weak and 3M thought the adhesive was therefore useless. Mr. Spencer had the idea that he could put the adhesive on a bulletin board and then place paper to it – no tacks required. However, his idea didn’t catch on. But 5 years later another 3M chemist, Art Fry, became frustrated when small slips of paper he used in his choir hymnal would fall out or disappear into the book. He had the idea of putting Spencer’s adhesive on paper instead of on a bulletin board. He took his idea to Spencer, who liked it, but 3M’s marketing department still thought it was useless. Fortunately, Geoff Nicholson, a 3M laboratory manger liked it and had his team began to market it. When 90 percent of users re-ordered the Post-It Notes the rest was history. The color of the Post-It was yellow because the scrap paper they used for the first Post-It Note was yellow and they just kept buying more yellow paper to replicate that first batch!

Matches: In 1826 a British pharmacist, John Walker, was stirring a pot of chemicals when he noticed that a dried lump of those chemicals formed at the end of his stick. Trying to scrape the chemicals from his stick he was surprised when it ignited. Realizing its potential, he packaged his friction lights, which were three inch long sticks with the chemicals at the end, in a box with a piece of sandpaper. He didn’t however, patent the idea and a short time later Samuel Jones put his Lucifers, which were much shorter sticks, in a small box that was easier to carry. Today matches are made with red phosphorus at the tip, first manufactured by Diamond Match Company.

Ice Cream Cones: At the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis the weather was a scorcher and ice cream was a popular product in this heat. At this time ice cream was sold to the public in paper dishes and one ice cream vendor, Arnold Fornachou, ran out of them. Next to him was another vendor, Ernest Hamwi, who was selling a waffle-like pastry called a zalabia. In the St. Louis heat his pastry wasn’t selling. Mr. Hamwi wanted to help his neighbor to sell his ice cream and rolled up one of his waffle pastries and gave it to Fornachou to put his ice cream in. The combination proved to be an instant success. The other vendors soon copied this combination and no one was able to obtain a patent as there were many conflicting claims as to who first invented the waffle-rolling machine.

Microwave Oven: In the early 1940s Percy Spencer, a scientist for Raytheon, was working with a new magnetron, a vacuum tube that released energy to power radar equipment. One day, when working on a radar device that used the magnetron, he noticed that a chocolate bar in his pocket melted. Curious, he experimented on trying to heat other food items, eventually leading engineers at Raytheon in an effort to try and contain the microwaves for the safe heating of foods. However it was the Amana Corporation, which was acquired by Raytheon in 1965, that first introduced the microwave oven to the American household in 1967.

Chocolate Chip Cookie: In 1930 Ruth Graves Wakefield ran out of baker’s chocolate for her Butter Drop Do cookies. At the time she and her husband owned the Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass. In order to compensate she took a bar of Nestles semisweet chocolate and broke it into tiny chunks and mixed it in her batter, assuming it would completely melt in the oven and spread throughout the dough. It didn’t. Instead, when she took the cookies out of the oven the chocolate only slightly melted. She still served the cookies to her guests who loved them so much that word spread and attracted people from all over New England to her inn. Nestle loved it too and printed her recipe on the back of every one of their semisweet chocolate bars in return for Wakefield receiving a lifetime supply of their semisweet chocolate.

imagesPopsicle: In 1905 Frank Epperson left a fruit-flavored soda drink, with a stirring stick in the cup, outside overnight. The next morning the drink had frozen around the stick. Epperson saw this and pulled the frozen drink out of the cup and licked it, but thought nothing for about it for 17 years. Then, in 1922, he decided to serve his frozen lollipops at a fireman’s ball. This became an instant hit. He followed this up by serving his invention at other venues. Finally in 1923 he applied for a patent and began selling his Eppsicles. Later he changed the name to popsicles when Epperson’s children didn’t like the original name.

Velcro: In 1955 Swiss electrical engineer George De Mestral would take his dog for a walk in the woods and was fascinated with the cockleburs’ ability to cling to both his clothes and his dog’s fur. Under a microscope he noticed that the cockleburs had tiny hooks that allowed them to adhere to the loops in clothing and fur. In 1959, using nylon, he named the product Velcro, combining the words velvet and crochet, and launched its use in the fashion industry. But the product didn’t catch on until NASA used it in the 1960s with its Apollo astronauts who would secure items in their zero-gravity environment. Its use took off after that.

Corn Flakes: in 1894 John Kellogg was the chief medical officer at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, where his brother Will was a bookkeeper. John was trying to come up with a digestible bread substitute for patients and began boiling wheat to try and make dough. One day John boiled the dough too long and, when he rolled it out the dough separated. After baking and tasting it the brothers liked what they had and began serving Granose flakes to patients who, as it turned out, couldn’t get enough of the product. John started to manufacture and sell the product, which was an immediate success. The brothers created Bran Flakes and Rice Krispies and later added sugar to some of their recipes.

Superglue: In 1951 Harry Coover, an Eastman Kodak researcher, was experimenting with cyanoacrylates for jet canopies, but the substances stickiness became a problem. But he realized that the bond these sticky adhesives created didn’t require either heat or pressure, and they were permanent. Coover’s patent called this invention superglue.

Teflon: A DuPont chemist, Roy Plunkett, was combining the gas tetrafluroethylene with hydrochloric acid for an experiment. He wasn’t quite ready for the experiment so he cooled and pressurized the mixture in a canister overnight. When he returned the next morning the gas was gone. Curious, he cut the canisters in half and noticed that the gas had solidified into a slick surface. Testing the substance he noticed that it was inert to virtually all chemicals. The product was trademarked as Teflon in 1945.

Saccharin: In the 1870s Constantin Fahlberg, a Johns Hopkins University chemist was experimenting with coal-tar derivatives. He went home to dinner one night and noticed that everything at dinner tasted sweet. Since the recipes for this dinner hadn’t changed, he deduced the sweetness came from something on his hands. Earlier that day liquid from an over-boiled beaker had spilled over his hands. Going back to his lab Fahlberg was able to replicate the experiment and Saccharin was discovered.

My thanks to Pamela Cyran and Chris Gaylord of The Christian Science Monitor and Andy Simmons of Readers Digest for their compilation of many of these discoveries.

Alan Refkin

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