Accidental Discoveries: When Smart Inventors Make Dumb Mistakes

  • The most famous accidental discovery of all time? Boner pills...
  • Products like Silly Putty, the Slinky and the Frisbee were all possible because of happy accidents.
  • Smart people have made some dumb mistakes inventing stuff. And that's a good thing.

Most successful inventors will agree that many mistakes are made in the lab, garage or at the kitchen table before a new product comes to market. But, sometimes, those blunders end up with something even better: The Accidental Discovery. Here’s a list of some of the most famous, profitable and useful accidental discoveries of all time. Like Thomas Edison himself once said, “Success is 99% failure.” Actually, I made that up. But it sounds much better coming from him…

Monkees Liquid Paper
In 1956, a working mother was frustrated by having to re-type entire pages of documents because of a single mistake. So, Bette Nesmith Graham, while doing her nails, came up with the idea that a white colored “Liquid Paper” could do the job and be applied just like fingernail polish. After pushing the product office-to-office for years, she finally got a break and sold her company to Gillette for millions. Oh, and her other great product? Son Michael Nesmith, who went on to fleeting fame with a little Pop-Rock band called “The Monkees”…

Penicillin: In 1928, British scientist Alexander Fleming was conducting experiments while looking for a flu vaccine. Suddenly called away from his lab for several days, he returned to find one of the growth cultures “ruined’ by a mysterious mold which repelled bacteria. He had accidentally discovered Penicillin. Millions would soon be relieved of the flu, but it was really the cure for the crabs which made the vaccine most useful…

Plastic: In 1907, Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland was trying to find a cheap chemical alternative to expensive shellac compounds, produced by the costly breeding of Asian Beetles. Mixing several compounds, he noticed that one mixture hardened into a malleable product which today we call plastic. Rather immodestly, Baekeland named his discovery Bakelite and he became a millionaire many times over in the next decade, while he held the patent to the formula.

Gunpowder: Although we’ll never know who the 9th century Chinese alchemists were who first mixed precise amounts of saltpeter, sulfur, and charcoal, the results have changed the world forever after those simple ingredients combined to form gunpowder, which is, essentially, still comprised of the same ingredients.

Synthetic Rubber: Until 1839, naturally growing rubber was virtually useless in any other temperate environment higher than 80 degrees or lower than 50. That year, independent inventor Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped a mixture of natural rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove which yielded a product that retained its useful properties in a much wider range of temperatures. And, it made for a rad blimp…

Popsicle
Not all great inventions were accidentally discovered by grownups. Kids have had an amazing track record as well. Perhaps the best example was when an 11-year-old Frank Epperson left his soda pop and stirring stick in a cup outside on an unusually frigid night in San Francisco, way back in 1905. Realizing it would make a cool treat at the beach, the kid patented the idea when he himself grew up. The result was the Popsicle and it’s still slaking thirst in hot weather to this day…

Dynamite: In 1895, Alfred Nobel accidentally spilled some nitroglycerin which, luckily, was absorbed by a gravelly substance known as Kieselguhr. Instead of blowing himself up, he had just invented a way to keep Nitro stable. Literally exploding profits from sales of his invention led him to start the annual award of the prizes which bear his name to this day.

Post-It-Notes: In 1968, 3M research scientist Dr. Spencer Silver was attempting to create the “stickiest” glue in the world, but his first, failed attempts yielded just the opposite. It wasn’t until 1975 that the company realized what they had and began marketing the Post-It Note, one of the firm’s most profitable products ever.

Kellogg’s Corn Flakes: Turn of the century health and nutrition hobbyist Keith Kellogg was experimenting with wheat flakes when he allowed a batch to get too soggy. Rather than throwing it out, he fortuitously let the batch dry. The result was the simple breakfast cereal we know today.

The Microwave Oven: In 1945, a Raytheon engineer named Percy Spencer was experimenting with a magnetron, set to emit much lower radiation and heat levels, when a chocolate candy bar melted in his shirt pocket. Good thing it wasn’t in his pants…

And, finally…

Viagra: In 1990, Pfizer Pharmaceutical company researchers were trying to come up with a drug which restricted the flow of blood to the heart. The exact opposite was the result of one batch, which also yielded a curious side effect: Raging boners lasting for hours.

The rest, as they say, is Herstory

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Reid Moore

Reid Moore is a Freelance Blogger retired from the USAF who lives in Riverside, California. Reid Moore has been writing online since 1996 on a wide variety of topics including News, Sports, Politics, Tech, Gaming, Autos, Popular Culture, Science, Music, Poetry, Art, Literature, the Paranormal, the Outdoors, Travel, Nature, Pets, Animals and Wildlife. So, naturally, in his spare time, Reid Moore can be found taking a well deserved nap...
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