5 Inventions That Were Accidents

Some inventions only come into being after months or years of innovation, research and development. Others come about quite by accident. In fact, some inventions that come about by accident are among those that are the most famous and enduring.

Here’s a look at a few of those inventions. Remember, when you’re creating something new, you don’t always arrive at your intended destination. Nonetheless, you just might find that you’ve invented something that is of benefit to everyone.

1. Post-It Notes

It’s hard to believe that Post-It Notes haven’t been a part of the office forever. Believe it or not, the now-ubiquitous little slips of paper that are equipped with just the right amount of adhesive first came on the scene in the 1970s.

In 1968, scientist Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to formulate an extremely strong adhesive, but his efforts unintentionally resulted in an extremely weak adhesive. Despite things not going according to plan, Silver suspected that his new invention was worthwhile. Unfortunately, his colleagues didn’t agree at first.

One of those colleagues eventually decided that the adhesive might be useful if it were applied to bookmarks. This colleague, Arthur Fry, worked with Silver to develop these adhesive bookmarks, and this later evolved into adhesive notes that could be written on.

Post-It Notes debuted on the market in 1979, and the rest is history.

2. Velcro

Swiss engineer George de Mestral was frustrated by the stubborn burrs that always stuck to his clothing and his pet’s fur when he was out on dog walks. Closer inspection revealed that the burrs were equipped with tiny hooks that enabled them to stick to almost anything with ease. Using this natural design as inspiration, de Mestral developed a new fastening system that was built upon this concept. Eventually, that fastening system was named Velcro, and it’s now familiar to people all around the globe.

3. Penicillin

Scottish bacteriologist Dr. Alexander Fleming was merely returning from vacation when he discovered cultures of Staphylococcus aureus in his lab. He’d intended to throw away those cultures before leaving for vacation, and when he examined them now, he found that some of them had died.

Fleming studied this development, only to learn that a certain fungus had grown within the cultures, and that this fungus had actually destroyed the bacteria. The fungus was a mold known as Penicillium notatum.

Fleming received assistance from Australian pathologist Howard Walter Florey and British biochemist Sir Ernst Boris Chain, who were responsible for isolating and purifying penicillin so that it could be prepared for clinical use.

Initially, Fleming called his discovery “mold juice” before deciding on the less objectionable name “penicillin. This accidental discovery has since saved countless lives.

4. Implantable Pacemaker

Irregular heartbeat is a health concern for many people, but an implantable pacemaker can help to regulate a strong, steady and predictable beat.

Implantable pacemakers are battery-powered devices that are inserted beneath a patient’s skin. As it delivers electrical pulses, the pacemaker induces the heart to beat in a regular rhythm.

Believe it or not, the implantable pacemaker also is an accidental invention. Engineer Wilson Greatbatch was hoping to invent a device that could record the rhythm of people’s heartbeats. However, during his experiments, Greatbatch employed a resistor in the circuit that was the wrong size. This caused the device to create intermittent electrical impulses that sounded a lot like the human heartbeat.

Pacemaker machines were already in use in medical facilities, but they were impossible to move, painful and inconveniently large.

Greatbatch soon learned that it was possible for his invention to be used to place electrodes directly to the heart’s muscle tissue, which would keep the patient’s heart beating in the appropriate rhythm. This meant that patients could benefit from a pacemaker without being stuck at the hospital.

Working with Dr. William Chardack and Dr. Ander Gage, Greatbatch made the pacemaker smaller and implanted it in a dog as an experiment. By 1960, the first portable pacemaker was implanted in a patient. He lived for an additional 18 months. Since then, the technology has been extensively refined and perfected.

5. Play-Doh

Most adults today grew up playing with Play-Doh, but this wasn’t always the case. In fact, Play-Doh wasn’t even a toy in the beginning.

Instead, it was a cleaning product developed by soap maker Kutol Products for use in households across the country. Kutol Products wasn’t doing well, and they were faced with going out of business by the end of the 1920s. Nonetheless, employee Cleo McVicker entered into a contract with grocery store chain known as Kroger to develop a wallpaper cleaner.

Using ordinary ingredients like flour, salt and water, Kutol Products produced a compound that could safely and efficiently clean wallpaper. This product kept the company afloat for a few decades, but sales were floundering again by the 1950s. McVicker’s son, Joseph, was inspired to re-imagine the cleaning product as a children’s toy.

Joseph’s sister-in-law, Kay Zufall, was a teacher, and she invited Joseph to bring the wallpaper cleaner to her classroom to see how the children played with it. After seeing how much the students enjoyed it, Joseph knew he had an idea that was destined for success.

The ingredients were altered, and Kutol Products established another entity, Rainbow Crafts Company Inc., to market Play-Doh.

When Play-Doh was introduced to a national audience on the Captain Kangaroo television show, history was made.

Take the Next Steps with Williams IP Law

Do you have an invention that you think is poised to be the next big deal? If so, then you need the guidance and advice of an experienced intellectual property attorney. Contact Williams IP Law today to schedule a free consultation.

Author: Jeff Williams

Jeff Williams is an experienced mechanical engineer and lawyer that consults closely with clients in a strait forward and clear manner.  He brings a particular set of strengths and unique perspectives to the firm.    
 Jeff received a B.S. in Mechanical Engineering from Arizona State University in 2005.  He was an engineer for a number of years at a number of large corporations before pursuing his law degree.  He graduated from Texas A&M University School of Law (formerly Texas Wesleyan University School of Law) with a J.D. in 2010.  By combining his education and prior work experience into the field of intellectual property law, Jeff has developed key skills to fully assist clients.