Not every wonderful invention was created intentionally. Some of the products we cherish most were born because of clumsiness or lazy tendencies. While others were discovered by watching how others interact with things differently than we do. For researchers who spend months, or even years experimenting, this spontaneous discovery can be thrilling. While not every item on this list was immediately adopted by the masses, all of them are now used, or consumed, on a day to day basis.
15. Corn Flakes
In 1894, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg worked as the superintendent of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan alongside his brother Will Keith Kellogg, who was trying to find wholesome and vegetarian foods to feed the patients. When Will accidentally left boiled wheat sitting out one day, it went stale and flaky. Not wanting to throw it away, he baked it instead, which yielded a satisfying crunch. They were such a hit with the patients that the Kellogg’s brothers began experimenting with other grains, which is how they came upon the corn recipe we know and love today. The Kellogg’s company was created in 1906 to sell the popular breakfast cereal.
14. Super Glue
Super glue was first encountered many years before its true purpose was determined. Researcher Harry Coover, who worked for Eastman Kodak, first attempted to use the substance to create plastic gun sights during World War II, which became problematic because it stuck to everything. In 1951, Coover experimented with the glue yet again, this time to develop heat-resistant jet airplane canopies, becoming frustrated yet again by its uber stickiness. These experiments helped Coover to realize that the glue didn’t require any heat or pressure to bond two items together permanently, and thus, super glue was born.
During World War II, an engineer named Richard James wanted to help the troops by inventing springs that could stabilize important instruments on naval ships during times of rough seas. While working on the springs, one was knocked off a table and “walked” its way down to the floor, then re-coiled itself and stood upright. After showing this to his wife, they determined it could be sold as a children’s toy with the name “Slinky.” It was first demonstrated to customers at Gimbels Department Store in 1945, and within the first 90 minutes over 400 Slinkys had been sold.
What do dogs have to do with velcro? Well, they’re the reason it was invented! After taking his canine companion for a walk in the woods one day, George De Mestral, a Swiss electrical engineer, noticed that cockleburs were sticking to his clothing and the dog’s fur. When he returned home he examined the burrs under a microscope, discovering they had small hooks that allowed them to easily attach to the loops found in fabric and fur. In 1955, after experimenting with many different materials, De Mestral determined that nylon was the most suitable, and Velcro was born! The fashion industry did not eagerly adopt the technology, however. It first gained traction in the 1960s when NASA astronauts began using it to secure loose items in their zero-gravity environment, and was later introduced into sporting goods such as footwear.
In the 1860s, nitroglycerin was a commonly used explosive, but it was quite unstable and prone to spontaneous explosions, making it difficult for scientists to experiment with. One day, Alfred Nobel (who would later establish the prestigious Nobel Prize award) was working with the substance when a vial fell to the floor and smashed. But it didn’t explode, due to the contact it had made with a pile of sawdust, which helped to stabilize it. Nobel later perfected the mixture by using kieselguhr, a form of silica, as a stabilizing substance. The production of a niroglycerin/kieselguhr combination was the beginning of what we now know as dynamite.
One of the most prescribed drugs in the world, Viagra was originally developed to help treat angina, a heart condition that constricts the vessels that supply the heart with blood. During drug trials, the pill proved inefficient at preventing anginas, however, it did yield another result: an increased number of erections in male participants. While at the time this may have been a disappointment to those who developed it, their accidental invention resulted in a gold mine for Pfizer.
9. Silly Putty
Like a few other accidental inventions on this list, Silly Putty was created during World War II. James Wright, an engineer working for the US War Production Board, was attempting to make a cheap alternative for synthetic rubber when he added boric acid to silicone oil, yielding a substance that had more bounce and stretch than rubber. Unfortunately, the government wasn’t interested in the material. But a few years later, a businessman named Peter Hodgson noticed how entertaining it was at a party, which prompted him to rename the substance “Silly Putty” and market it as a children’s toy.
A beloved children’s toy to this day, Play-Doh was initially invented as a cleaning product. Before World War II, most homes were heated using coal, which left layers of soot deposits throughout the house, including wallpaper, which Play-Doh was meant to assist with. But after the War, natural gas became a far more common heat source, leaving Noah and Joseph McVicker’s invention without a customer base and the company, Kutol’s Products, on the brink of brankruptcy. But in the early 1950s Joseph discovered that his sister, a schoolteacher, was giving the material to her students to use as modeling dough. After testing the product in nurseries and schools, the McVickers established Rainbow Crafts as the company under which the product would be sold. It was originally offered only in off-white, but colors were introduced the following year.
7. Post-It Notes
Post-It Notes, the tool we use to organize our thoughts and to-do lists, were created as a result of both accident and necessity. In 1968, a 3M employee by the name of Spencer Silver, was trying to develop a super strong adhesive to be used in the manufacture of airplanes. What he created instead was a weak, pressure-sensitive adhesive called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres, which had a couple of interesting features, including its ability to be re-used and the lack of residue it left after being peeled off. But the employees at 3M were having a difficult time thinking of a profitable use for the substance, so the invention was shelved. But one day, a fellow engineer at 3M had an idea. A singer in his church choir, Art Fry was constantly frustrated that the bookmarks in his hymn book kept falling out, causing him to lose his place. He then thought of Silver’s adhesive, and that it could be used on paper as markers in his hymn book. This idea still didn’t grab the attention of the company’s executives, but a lab manger named Geoff Nicholson was determined to get it to market. So he and his team created enough product to distribute free samples to businesses and people throughout Boise, Idaho, 90 percent of whom reordered the product.
But why yellow paper? That, too, was unintentional. During the process of experimenting, Nicholson’s team borrowed some scrap paper from the lab next door. The color of that paper: yellow. After the scrap pile had been depleted, they simply continued ordering more yellow paper.
Invented by 11-year-old Frank Epperson in 1905, the original popsicle came to be when he forgot a powder-flavored soda water mixture on the porch one evening with a stir stick in it. The weather was incredibly cold outside, causing the mixture to freeze onto the stick. But not until 1922 was this treat served to the public, when Epperson brought them to the local Fireman’s ball, where they were an enormous hit. Realizing the commercial potential of the product, Epperson applied for a “frozen confectionary” patent in 1924 under the name “Epsicle Ice Pop.” In 1925, however, he needed to sell his patent to the Popsicle Corporation after running into some money troubles. Today the Popsicle brand is owned by the Good Humor division of Unilever.
5. Ice Cream Cone
In the late 1800s and early 1900s, ice cream became an increasingly popular treat. The plentiful number of street vendors made competition fierce, and the defining difference between each came down to more than just flavors; it was all about what the ice cream was served in. Common materials included paper, glass and metal. But it was at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis that the ice cream cone was created. Arnold Fornachou, an ice cream vendor, had trouble keeping up with the hot day’s demands and ran out of paper cups to serve it in. A nearby vendor named Ernest Hamwi was having the opposite problem. His waffle-life pastry called “zalabia” wasn’t selling, so he gave some to Fornachou to serve ice cream in. This tasty combination has been a hit ever since.
For those of us with a low pain tolerance, this invention has been quite a saving grace. In the 1800s, Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells all discovered that breathing in ether or nitrous oxide could suppress pain. By participating in “laughing parties,” where these compounds were inhaled for recreation and entertainment, the men learned more about the drugs’ effects on people’s perceptions of pain. Morton and Jackson adopted the use of anesthesia for dental purposes, while Long administered it for minor surgeries.
One of the most widely used antibiotics, penicillin was first developed by Scottish researcher Sir Alexander Fleming in 1928. The careless type, Fleming departed for a two-week vacation having left out a petri dish containing staphylococcus. Upon returning, Fleming discovered that the staphylococcus had developed a layer of mold, which had prevented it from growing any further. The discovery took over 13 years to become a medical treatment, however, due to difficulties in growing large quantities of the mold. But when Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and Andrew Moyer discovered a comparable type of mold that grew far more rapidly, they were able to begin the experiments that have since saved innumerable lives.
2. Chocolate Chip Cookies
It’s hard to believe these wildly popular cookies could have been an accident, but they were. Ruth Graves Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, ran the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, where Ruth prepared all of the food for the inn’s guests. She had developed quite a reputation for her cooking, but in 1930, while preparing a batch of Chocolate Butter Drop Do cookies, Ruth realized she was out of baker’s chocolate. Assessing what substitute ingredients she had on-hand, she chopped up a bar of Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate and tossed the pieces in with the mixture. Expecting the chips would melt into the dough as they cooked, like baker’s chocolate would, she was surprised to find that they had instead retained their shape, but were soft and gooey. The success of these treats had her recipe for “Chocolate Crunch Cookies” featured in several newpapers and on a Betty Crocker radio program. She later established an agreement with Andrew Nestle of the Nestle Company for a lifetime supply of semi-sweet chocolate in exchange for the recipe being printed on the bar’s label.
1. Potato Chips
Potato chips, America’s beloved snack of choice, were originally developed to annoy a dissatisfied diner in 1853. George Crum, a chef at the Moon Lake Lodge in Saratoga Springs, New York, served French fries to the customer, who initially complained they were too thick. Crum then made a second batch, which was thinner, but still did not appease him. So for the third batch, in an attempt to further irritate the diner, Crum made fries that were so thin they couldn’t be eaten with a fork, and over salted them for good measure. Surprisingly, the customer loved them, and potato chips were invented!