Innovation By Accident

Sometimes, great things are created accidentally

Name the greatest of all inventors. Accident.

[Mark Twain]

I was recently inspired to write this ‘innovation series’ post by a colleague, whose knowledge-base seems to be larger than Wikipedia, and who at lunch one day offhandedly revealed some really interesting facts about some things that were accidentally discovered. I hope you find them as surprising and fun as I did:

Example 1: Microwaves

It is reported that Percy Spencer was experimenting with a magnetron (a vacuum tube) while doing research for the Raytheon Corporation, and was surprised when the chocolate bar in his pocket started melting. After testing the effect of the magnetron on other foods, Spencer saw the potential of the technology to be used to heat food.

The company Raytheon patented the idea and built the world’s first microwave oven in 1947, which was about the size of a refrigerator. It cost close to $5,000, was 1.7 m tall, and weighed 340 kg. This first version was understandably not very popular with household consumers, but it only took a few years before more affordable, counter-top versions were introduced to the market.

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Example 2: Superglue

Superglue was reportedly discovered and then re-discovered by the same man (Dr. Harry Coover) before its commercial potential was realized and it was turned into a product.

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The first discovery occurred in 1942 when Dr. Coover was looking for materials to make clear plastic gun sights for the Second World War. Instead of making a gun sight, he created a concoction that stuck to everything it touched and dried extremely quickly. This product did not suit the task at hand, so was forgotten until 1951, when Dr. Coover and his colleague Fred Joyner at Eastman Kodak stumbled across the formulation again while doing research on another project. This time, they realized that it could be sold as a sort of glue and Kodak began selling the product under the name ‘Eastman #910’, which was later changed to the more catchy name we know it by today ‘superglue’.

Example 3: Gunpowder

The invention of gunpowder is credited to Chinese alchemists in the Tang Dynasty (9th century) who were searching for an elixir of immortality. Ironically, they created something quite the opposite.blog_3

The gunpowder mixture they created was originally used to treat skin diseases and kill insects before its potential use as a weapon became obvious. The Chinese fought the first wars with gunpowder against the Mongols, and many historians believe that the psychological effects of their unknown, mystifying fiery weapons helped win battles.

With gunpowder came the invention of fireworks, which were believed to ward off evil spirits.

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Additional things that have allegedly been created by accident are:

  • Corn Flakes
  • The Slinky
  • Coca Cola
  • Post-it Notes
  • Potato Chips
  • Artificial Sweetener
  • Chocolate Chip Cookies
  • … and the list goes on

Stay tuned for more posts on innovations that have occurred throughout history, and to learn about some great things that are happening today.

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