We appreciate inventors for giving us many products that we use, but often their inventions were the result of an accident, a mistake, or a twist of fate. Here is a list of a few everyday items you might not have suspected came about the way they did.
The microwave oven is now a standard appliance in most American households that was invented by mistake. In 1945, Percy Spencer was experimenting with a new vacuum tube called a magnetron while doing research for the Raytheon Corporation. The candy bar in his pocket began to melt, so he tried another experiment with popcorn. When it began to pop, Spencer immediately saw the potential in this revolutionary process. In 1947, Raytheon built the first microwave oven, the Radarange, which weighed 750 pounds, was 5 and 1/2 feet tall, and cost about $5,000. In the early 1950s, its bulky size and expensive price made it unpopular with consumers. In 1967, a much more popular 100-volt, countertop version was introduced at a price of $495. Most people use a microwave either at home or at work at least once a day.
Silly Putty was a mistake. The silicone-based plastic clay marketed as a children’s toy by Binney & Smith, Inc. has been a toy at one time for most children. During World War II, James Wright was attempting to make a synthetic rubber substitute. He accidentally dropped boric acid into silicone oil. The result was a polymerized substance that bounced, but it took several years to find a use for the product. Finally, in 1950, marketing expert Peter Hodgson saw its potential as a toy, renamed it Silly Putty, and a classic toy was born. Silly Putty has practical uses. It picks up dirt, lint, and pet hair. Silly Putty can stabilize wobbly furniture; and is useful in stress reduction, physical therapy, and in medical and scientific simulations. It was even used by the crew of Apollo 8 to secure tools in zero gravity.
The Slinky came about by mistake in 1943, when naval engineer Richard James was trying to develop a spring that would support and stabilize sensitive equipment on ships. When one of the springs accidentally fell off a shelf, it continued moving, and James got the idea for a toy. His wife Betty came up with the name, and when the Slinky made its debut in late 1945, James sold 400 of the bouncy toys in 90 minutes. Today, more than 250 million Slinkys have been sold worldwide.
Play-Doh, the brightly-colored, nontoxic modeling clay is a childhood favorite. Play-Doh was accidentally invented in 1955 by Joseph and Noah McVicker while trying to make a wallpaper cleaner. It was marketed a year later by toy manufacturer Rainbow Crafts. More than 700 million pounds of Play-Doh have sold since then, but the recipe remains a secret.
Fireworks originated in China about 2,000 years ago. Legend has it that they were accidentally invented by a cook who mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter. All these items were commonly found in kitchens in those days. The mixture burned and when compressed in a bamboo tube, it exploded, and today we know the combination as fireworks.
A Post-it note or sticky note is a small piece of paper with a strip of low-tack adhesive on the back that allows it to be temporarily attached to documents, walls, computer monitors, and just about anything else. Every office in the country probably has post-it notes. In 1974, Arthur Fry as a way of holding bookmarks in his hymnal while singing in the church choir. He was aware of an adhesive accidentally developed in 1968 by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver. The 3M company was initially skeptical about the product. In 1980, the Post-it note was introduced around the world. Today, Post-it notes are sold in more than 100 countries.
Saccharin, the oldest artificial sweetener, was accidentally discovered in 1879 by researcher Constantine Fahlberg, who was working at Johns Hopkins University in the laboratory of professor Ira Remsen. Fahlberg’s discovery came after he spilled a chemical on his hands and when he ate his lunch without washing his hand, he discovered that the bread tasted unusually sweet. In 1884, Fahlberg obtained a patent and began mass-producing saccharin. The use of saccharin did not become widespread until sugar was rationed during World War I, and its popularity increased during the 1960s and 1970s with the manufacture of Sweet’N Low and diet soft drinks.
Potato chips were made by a mistake. Chef George Crum reportedly created the salty snack in 1853 at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York. His customer continuously sent his fried potatoes back, complaining that they were soggy and not crunchy enough, so Crum sliced the potatoes as thin as possible, fried them in hot grease, then doused them with salt. The customer loved them and “Saratoga Chips” quickly became a popular item at the lodge and throughout New England. So when you can’t just eat just one, it is because of Crum’s invention.
Make sure you read about other foods that came about by mistake.