5 Big Inventions ... That Were Total Accidents
We've all experienced happy accidents. You know, the totally run-of-the-mill stuff. Like accidentally picking up a new type of cheese at the grocery store, giving it a shot, and finding out you love it. Generally, though, our happy accidents don't change the world. Or even our own personal fortunes. I doubt there have been many times in my life when I went to back out of my driveway, accidentally put my car in drive instead, and plowed through my house, only to reveal that it was sitting atop a long-lost depository of Babe Ruth rookie cards and my very own robot butler. That hasn't happened to me yet, but I guess there is only one way to find out.
But, when it comes to these inventions that made a true impact on the world in one way or another, they all happened when the scientist or totally regular person behind them put their brain in forward instead of reverse, accidentally came up with something everyone knows today ...
Everything About Post-it Notes Was A Mistake
There is something beautiful about a Post-it Note falling gently from a board in an office. It's like a light, graceful, bad idea raindrop. Maybe the guy you hate the absolute most in the entire place proudly hung up his latest shitty idea, I don't know, toilet paper with little barbs inside of it, because you work in the creative wing at a toilet paper company. His barbed toilet paper doodle frees itself and suicides to the grey office carpet. Never to be put back up there again. Well, that occasional failure in Post-it Note design is exactly what helped them get accidentally invented in the first place.
As a scientist at 3M, Dr. Spencer Silver was assigned the job of finding and making shit as sticky as possible. The polar opposite of a Post-it Note. In his quest to create something stickier, Silver discovered microspheres, something that could remain sticky but allow itself to be pulled from a surface and reattached at will. Initially, nothing happened. That's because this dude was tasked with being the sticky guy for his company, and he kind of invented the exact opposite. If you're the dude in the lab who's supposed to be working on the most serene, clean, beautiful scent in the world and accidentally create Super Butt™, a scent that takes the power of the butts of everyone walking on the planet and doubles them and puts that butt scent of a thousand suns into an eyedropper, you probably aren't getting a promotion.
But, like many great inventors, Silver persisted. He always had his invention in the back of his mind and shared it with anybody who would listen. That eventually fell to a coworker, who had been running into a problem at his church groups, where his paper markings used to mark hymnals would fall out before they ever got to singin' fer Jesus. Remembering Silver's invention, the two worked together to develop these barely-sticky notes initially as bookmarks but soon found them even more useful as note receptacles as they worked on their new invention.
They eventually got 3M to sign off on it, and the product became a runaway hit. In one final act of absolute luck, the iconic yellow color was accidental as well, as the factory printing them up only had that color in stock for the day. If anything, Silver and his invention are great reminders that you can sometimes fail miserably at your job and keep rising up the ladder. So just remember that the next time you accidentally delete everything off of the company server and send them back to their own corporate stone age, that you may just be in the middle of your very own Post-it Note moment. Just tell the boss this is your Post-it Note moment, and you will be absolutely fine.
Related: A Note About The Cracked Podcast
Safety Glass Dropped, Din't Break
Back in the day, smart and creative people did everything. You couldn't just be a smart guy and only a smart guy like in today's day. If you were brilliant, you also had to be a painter and a poet and make sure that you invented something that changed the world, too. Now, if you're really smart, you get to talk at conferences about how smart you are, but I think it's only fair that we all get a look at Elon Musk's poetry book. Édouard Bénédictus was one of those old-school smarts. A brainiac, artist, writer, composter, you name it, Bénédictus was doing it. But it's his work in the science lab that brings us to his accidental invention of safety glass.
One day in 1903, when Bénédictus was bouncing around in his lab, probably playing a full one-man orchestra with one hand while creating early vaccines with the other, he accidentally knocked over a glass flask.
To Bénédictus' surprise, the glass didn't break like he was expecting. Instead of flying off into a million little pieces, it cracked but kept its form. Instead of doing what the rest of us would do when something potentially life-changing happens in front of us that we're too dumb to pick up on and just ignoring it, Bénédictus got to work. He remembered that there was another compound in that flask earlier, plastic cellulose nitrate, which had created this bonding effect after drying to the glass. Eventually, this guy had one of his many lifetime Eureka moments and realized that this glass could be used in places like automobiles, where accidents were sending a hailstorm of glass shards onto the drivers because the windshields were breaking like normal ass glass does.
From there, safety glass went on to be used just about anywhere there was danger of glass shattering and genuinely changed the world -- all in one little accident in a lab. I'd be happy to have just one Eureka moment that changed my life. Maybe finally coming to the realization that I cannot immediately pop Pizza Rolls directly into my head from the oven and that I have to wait if I don't want to have a skin graft. Maybe one day, but today is not that day.
Slinky: Engineering Spare Garbage Into A Toy
From an invention that has saved countless lives to … well ... the Slinky. Yes, the toy that has been underwhelming children in this country for decades was invented by accident. The toy that I can vividly remember playing with for the first time. On the steps of my family's townhouse growing up, I let that stupid ass thing go from the top step, and boy … did I not give a shit. I was already on my second round of Mortal Kombat on the Genesis before that thing even hit the middle steps.
But, because the Slinky was invented in the '40s, there was no Sega to distract mechanical engineer Richard James from discovering this thing by accident. As with most of these inventions, James was working on his day job, trying to create a type of spring that would support sensitive cargo at sea, when he accidentally knocked over a shelf, and the magic happened. And by magic, I mean a spring started Slinky-ing. The magic of a sad little metal droop rolling itself along was all the inspiration that James needed.
James got to work with his wife on turning this spring into the next big toy sensation. Because, again, it's the 40s. Kids didn't have shit to do. The easiest way to make a billion dollars would be to go back in time and invent the hottest 1940s toy sensation. All you'd need to bring into the time machine with you is a cinder block painted green with a couple of googly eyes glued onto it, and you'll be stepping back in as the future's most powerful man. This one is a case of how loosely the word "invention" can really be used. Sure, this technically counts, but really a dude just knocked a bunch of shit over until something stuck. It's probably what half of the guys calling into those television hotlines for patents are working with anyway. Tripping over themselves in the kitchen, sending a toaster into the coffee machine, and the world's dimmest light bulb goes off over their head.
James proves that sometimes, you just have to be at the right place at the right time when it comes to inventions. In his case, that place and time was back when all you needed to be the world's greatest toymaker was to get blackout drunk and sprint full speed through the wall of your backyard shed and emerge with your next great idea.
Listerine: When Medical Marketing Fails, Create Something?
Not all inventions start out as a hit. Sometimes, it takes a bit of work for them to find a home. To settle into the use that will become ubiquitous in the day-to-day lives of people. There's no better example of that than Listerine and the long journey it went on until its proper "invention" as a mouth wash. In fact, far before you were running that green tonic through your mouth, it was originally developed as a surgical antiseptic.
From there, it was bottled up and used as everything from a floor cleaner to a treatment for gonorrhea. Shockingly, those didn't really land. I have a hard time believing that you can use the same thing to get spaghetti sauce out of your floor as you can to make it stop hurting when you pee. It wasn't until the 1920s when Listerine truly found its place as a treatment for halitosis.
Listerine even claims to have invented the term halitosis; though that's been debated, there is no question that they finally unlocked the true potential of their electric green formula. By creating a seemingly bullshit condition and claiming to cure it. Backed by a marketing campaign that featured young people who really wanted to get married and bone but were not digging their partner's breath, Listerine took off in a big way. Supported by this campaign that was essentially the first global awareness effort for bad breath, Listerine skyrocketed and never went back to its original days of doctors pouring it all over the crotches of their male patients.
As all of these inventions have shown us, there is no clear path to success here. Nothing better illustrates that than the windy road Listerine took to finding its place. So, if you're out there, working on something and finding it's just not sticking. It's not landing the way you want it to. Maybe you've got this little gun that shoots hot molten magma from it, and you're trying to turn it into the next great crafting sensation; I guess you could just put it in your mouth and squirt some out and see what happens? I think, from my understanding, the best way to turn a stalled invention into something profitable is to just put that shit into your mouth.
Melted Squirrel Snacks Gave Us The Microwave Oven
For the lucky few, great inventions seem to happen as a result of lab accidents. Though my last time in any sort of lab was in high school chemistry, where it took every fiber of my being not to fall asleep above the Bunsen burner and find out my greatest invention, the easiest and quickest way to get your ass expelled. Putting people with actual brains into a lab produces different results. That's the case with the invention of the microwave oven and its original creator, Percy Spencer.
Spencer, an engineer, was messing around in the lab when the technology he was working around melted his peanut cluster bar that he carried daily to feed the squirrels around the office. Probably super pissed about this machine taking food from the mouths of his squirrel family, Spencer got down to figuring out what the hell was going on.
He then did what anyone would do in this situation; he just started putting shit beneath the magic technology to see if it, too, would get all messed up. After an egg exploded directly in his face and corn kernels popped right before his eyes, Spencer knew he was on to something.
Spencer and his company went to work finding a way to make money off of this fantastic new technology, and they created the Radarange. There was just one problem. It wasn't quite the countertop-sized food resuscitator that we know it to be today. The Radarange was a 700-pound beast that failed to catch on. Probably because most people weren't ready to put a nuclear reactor in their kitchen just to have a slightly more enjoyable movie night.
Still, though, Spencer's technology and eye for the invention eventually caught on years later when the microwave as we know it was developed and made a bit more manageable for the standard American kitchen. It all just goes to show that sometimes, you just need that one idea. You just need to be walking around this planet, absolutely stuffed with peanut cluster bars that you weirdly feed to your squirrel friends that you like more than humans, and the second something happens to that absolute mess of peanut cluster bars that you carry on your person at all times, you pounce on that opportunity and turn your messy peanut disaster into the next big thing.