Most inventors spend years and years trying to create and perfect what they hope will be a life-changing product.
And, yet, some of the most fascinating and brilliant discoveries actually came about as an accident. Mistakes, in fact, that have had a seriously lasting impact on the world as we know it today.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
In 1930, Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn, just wanted to make some chocolate cookies, but discovered she was out of baker’s chocolate. As a substitute she broke sweetened Nestle chocolate into small pieces and added them to the cookie dough. She expected the chocolate to melt, making chocolate cookies, but the little bits stuck.
At the time, she called them “Toll House Crunch Cookies” and they became extremely popular locally. Because her cookies increased sales in Nestle’s semi-sweet chocolate bars, Andrew Nestle and Wakefield came to an agreement that they would print the recipe on it’s package and she would be given a lifetime supply of Nestle chocolate.
In 1943, Richard Jones, a naval engineer, was trying to figure out a way to employ springs aboard navy ships to keep sensitive instruments from bouncing around. He accidentally dropped one of them, and to his amusement — and that of kids everywhere for generations to come — the spring immediately righted itself and landed upright on the floor.
Since then, kids everywhere have enjoyed playing with what is now known as the “Slinky,” named for a widely-used synonym for “sleek and graceful,” but also as a verbalization of the sound the toy made.
In 1853, George Crum, a chef in New York, accidentally invented potato chips when an annoying patron kept sending his French fried potatoes back to the kitchen because they were soggy.
In an attempt to teach the customer a lesson, Crum sliced them extra thin, fried them to a crisp and drowned them in salt.
To his surprise, however, the complaining customer actually liked them. “Saratoga Chips” became a staple on the menu and soon the chips were packaged and sold.
Swiss engineer George de Mestral was on a hunting trip with his dog when he noticed how burrs would stick to its fur. When he got home, he put them under a microscope and saw all the small hooks that enabled the seed-bearing burr to cling so viciously to the tiny loops in the fabric of his pants.
This inspired him to design a unique, two-sided fastener, one side with stiff hooks like the burrs and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of his pants, to rival the zipper in its ability to fasten.
He named it “Velcro” — a combination of the words velour and crochet.
During World War II, the United States government needed rubber for airplane tires, boots for soldiers, and the like. James Wright, an engineer at General Electric, was trying to make a rubber substitute out of silicon, since it was a widely available material.
Wright added boric acid to the substance during a test on silicon oil, but the result was a gooey, bouncy mess that the government had no interest in using.
Unemployed Peter Hodgson, however, saw an opportunity, borrowed $147 to buy the rights from GE and began producing the goo, which he renamed Silly Putty.
He packaged it in plastic eggs because it was close to Easter, and it quickly became one of America’s best-selling toys.
Image: ZME Science