Accidental discoveries paid
off for American companies
Accidents do happen, they say. They can be injurious and, at times, fatal. A twist of fortune can however turn accidents into million-dollar enterprises, and the “victims” can be very wealthy or famous.
In the 19th and 20th centuries, a number of products appeared in the marketplace after they were invented accidentally. The inventors and consumers stood to benefit from such flukes.
Corn flakes were never served on the breakfast table until 1906 when they were marketed. They were first eaten in the kitchen of a sanitarium in Michigan!
In 1894, Dr John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Willy Keith were looking for wholesome, vegetarian food for the sanitarium’s patients. They were at their wits’ end until one day Willy left some boiled wheat unattended. It turned stale when he came back to the kitchen. Instead of discarding it, however, they two brothers rolled it, hoping to turn it into sheets of dough. Eureka! They got corn flakes instead.
When the flakes were toasted, the patients found them tasty and crunchy. The brothers patented them under the name Granose. They next experimented with other grains, including corn. In 1906, Will formed the Kellogg’s company to make the corn flakes. John backed out after his brother added sugar to the product which, to John, lacked health benefits.
Still based in the US, Kellogg has set up facilities in 18 countries and sold a wide range of convenience foods in more than 180 countries. With sales topping US13 billion, Kellogg also manufactures cereal bars, frozen waffles and fruit-flavoured snacks under various brands.
The microwave ovens we use were also the result of an accident. The credit went to Percy Spencer in 1945 when he was toying with a new vacuum tube called a magnetron at the Raytheon Corporation. He was surprised and fascinated when a candy bar in his pocket melted. Curious, he tried another experiment with popcorn and, to his amazement, it popped!
Spenser saw the potential of the revolutionary process. Two years later, he developed the first microwave over – the Radarange. The 66-inch-tall gadget weighed 750 pounds and cost US$5,000. There were few takers owing to its size and price. In 1967, a countertop version priced at US$495 was a hit.
The silicone-based plastic clay marketed as a children’s toy, Silly Putty, was another bestseller. Scottish inventor James Wright was trying to create a synthetic rubber substitute at General Electric in New Haven, Connecticut, during World War Two when he accidentally dropped boric acid into silicone oil. The by-product was a polymerized substitute that bounced.
In 1950, marketing consultant Peter Hodgson turned the material into a toy. He renamed it Silly Putty, which was placed in egg-shaped plastic containers. In just three days, he sold 350,000 containers. Silly Putty is fun to play with; it also picks up dirt and pet hair, stabilizes unsteady tables or chairs, and is used for stress reduction, physical therapy and scientific simulations. The Apollo 8 crew used it to secure tools in zero gravity.
Post-it Notes made their debut in 1980. In 1970, Spencer Silver was working on the development of a strong adhesive in a 3M research laboratory when he created a new adhesive. It stuck to objects and could be easily lifted off.
Spencer did not know how the notes could be used until another 3M scientist, Arthur Fry, found them useful to prevent his bookmark in his hymn book from falling out while he was singing. Today, Post-It Notes in a variety of colours are marketed by 3M in more than 100 countries.
Play-Doh, a brightly coloured, nontoxic modelling clay, took the US market by storm after its introduction to an educational convention for manufacturers in 1955. Joseph McVicker found that the compound marketed as a wallpaper cleaner was used by nursery school children to make Christmas ornaments. When the salt content was reduced, toy models could dry without losing their colour.
The new product for art and craft projects was promoted at Ohio department stores, sparking a nationwide interest. In 1958, sales netted nearly US$3 million..
Slinky was unknown until a naval engineer, Richard James, invented it in 1943. He was trying to develop a spring that would stabilize sensitive equipment in ships. When one of the springs accidently fell off a shelf, it continued moving. James got an idea for a toy. The toy made its debut in 1945 and more than 250 million Slinky toys have been sold worldwide since that day.
Potato chips were concocted in the kitchen of a lodge near Saratoga Springs, New York, in 1853. When a customer complained that the fried potatoes served were not crunchy, chef George Crum sliced them into thin pieces, fried them in hot grease, then doused them with salt. The customer liked the “Saratoga chips”. The chips were later produced for home consumption
Saccharin – the oldest artificial sweetener – was accidentally discovered in 1879. Research Constantine Fahlberg was working in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University when he spilled a chemical on his hands. He found that the chemical made the bread he was eating taste unusually sweet. In 1884, he obtained a patent of the product.
Demand for the product was lukewarm until sugar was rationed during World War I. It was more popular in the 1960s and 1970s when it was used for the manufacture of diet soft drinks.