Necessity, as the saying goes, is the mother of invention. However, there have been plenty of times when chance, circumstance, and flat-out operator error have really deserved the credit. The process of discovery isn't always an exact science, and occasionally inventors stumble across new concepts and inventions so useful that it’s hard to imagine how we ever got by without them.
Norm Larsen was a self-taught industrial chemist who was driven to create things that would make life easier for people. In 1953, Larsen was working on a developing a formula for water displacement as a treatment to use against rust and corrosion, which were a serious concern in ballistic missile programs of that day.
Norm’s persistence eventually paid off – on his 40th attempt – when he perfected the formula, which was quickly put into use by General Dynamics on their Atlas missile development program.
In the mid-fifties Larsen, convinced he would later create a better product than WD-40, sold the rights to the product and his company Rocket Chemical for a jaw-dropping $10,000, with no royalties or residuals whatsoever.
But it soon became clear that WD-40 had uses far beyond just rusty missile prevention. The formula hit retail shelves in 1958, and has been lubricating bike chains, de-squeaking door hinges, and un-sticking stuck metal parts across the world ever since. The exact formula is still a trade secret.
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Dynamite was created in 1833 by Alfred Nobel (the man which the prestigious Nobel Prize is named after) who at the time was more famous for blowing up his own factories than he was for his actual inventions.
Nitroglycerine was becoming a widely produced explosive material at the time, largely due to the fact that it was far more powerful than its predecessor, gunpowder. But the problem was that nitroglycerine was extremely unstable, and it regularly blew up people and buildings without warning. Like many at the time, Nobel realized that nitroglycerine would be a lot more useful if they could only find a way to make it, you know, not explode randomly.
While working in a lab with a vial of nitroglycerine, the vial slipped out of his hand and hit the ground. After recovering from the initial shock and surprise that he hadn’t been blown to bits, Nobel soon realized that he owed his life to the sawdust on the ground where the vial had landed, which absorbed the liquid when it hit the ground.
After studying the accidental mixture, Nobel came to the realization that all it took to make nitroglycerine controllable was to mix it with an inert substance, settling on a special mixture of sedimentary rock. Now in possession of a stable (and relatively easy to transport) high explosive, production increased on an epic scale, and the use of dynamite would soon become instrumental in the demolition and mining industries.
5. Potato Chips
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Perhaps the strongest support for the old adage “the customer is always right,” one of America’s favorite snacks was created by George Crum (!), on August 24th, 1853 at the Moon Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York, as a way to get an unruly restaurant patron to shut up.
The customer had repeatedly sent back his fried potatoes, complaining that they were too thick and soggy. As a result, Crum decided to cut the potatoes so thin, the customer would be unable to eat them with a fork. And to combat his complaints about sogginess, Crum stir-fried the potato slices to a hardened crisp.
Much to Crum’s surprise, the customer was ecstatic with the results, and “Saratoga Chips” became a regular item on their menu. Their popularity quickly spread throughout the East Coast and beyond.
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Velcro came about in 1941 after Swiss engineer George de Mestral came back from a hunting trip in the Alps with his dog and wondered why the burrs of a burdock plant were stuck to his clothing and to his dog’s fur.
After further review under a microscope, Mestral noted that the burrs had hundreds of hooks on them which had a tendency to latch onto anything with a loop in it. Mestral concluded that, if produced en masse, the idea could find infinite use in the textile industry.
After finally creating a usable mechanized weaving process using the recently-invented nylon material, Velours Crochet (or Velcro), had been born. However, it wasn’t until NASA began using Velcro extensively in the 1960s that the “zipperless fastener” would start to gain worldwide popularity.
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Originally invented as a cure-all for everything from headaches to morphine addiction (possibly due to 8.5mg of cocaine being one of original formula’s key ingredients), Coca-Cola was introduced by John Pemberton as Pemberton's French Wine Coca, as he also saw its potential as an alternative to the popular French coca wine, which had recently been banned by Temperance Laws in parts of Georgia, where Pemberton lived.
Pemberton would later rename the product Coca-Cola after the name was suggested by his bookkeeper, Frank Mason, because snappy, alliterative medicine names were popular at the time, and Pemberton was committed to selling Coca Cola as a medical remedy.
Though sold only as a nerve tonic during Pemberton’s lifetime, just before he passed away in 1888, the rights to the Coca-Cola name and formula were purchased by Asa Griggs Candler for $2,300.
Candler realized that Coca-Cola was quite tasty (addictive, even!) and had the potential for far more success in the consumer market than in the medical realm. By 1894, Coca-Cola began bottling and selling the drink as a refreshment beverage in stores, and the rest, as they say, is history.
2. The Microwave
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In the early 1940s, while doing research and development for radar guidance systems for the American military defense contractor Raytheon, Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer from Howland, Maine, noticed something strange going on in his pants. While using a magnetron generator (which outputs the microwaves used by radar systems) he realized the chocolate bar in his pocket had suddenly melted.
Spencer quickly set out to try to repeat the anomaly, experimenting by deliberately trying to heat various foods. He first applied the microwaves to popcorn, then to an egg, the latter which exploded almost immediately.
He soon realized that if he could trap the microwaves in a metal box from which they couldn’t escape, the device would be much more efficient, and hastily crafted such an enclosure. And with that short sequence of events, Spencer had inadvertently created what we now commonly refer to as the microwave.
In 1947, the Radarange, the world’s first commercial microwave oven, which was six feet tall and weighed over 750 pounds, was put into a Boston restaurant, paving the way for untold numbers of piping hot pockets of junk food to enrich the lives of bachelors the world over from then on.
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On Friday, September 28, 1928, Scottish scientist Alexander Flemming accidentally came across one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical history, inadvertently inventing the world’s first antibiotic.
Flemming had mistakenly left a petri dish open over summer vacation in his basement lab of St. Mary's Hospital in London. When he came back to his lab, the petri dish which had contained a bacteria called Staphylococcus had been contaminated by blue-green mold, which had formed a visible halo around the mould itself. Flemming soon realized this halo effect had been caused by the mold killing the bacteria directly surrounding it.
After identifying that the mold was from the Penicillium genus, Flemming dubbed the substance Penicillin. The antibiotic spent many years being refined by both by Flemming and other chemists well into the 1940s, at which point it would prove to be a key component in the medical treatment of Allied soldiers in World War II.