The Top Seven Greatest Accidental Inventions
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.