I love the stories of great inventions that “just happened.” Here are a few of my favorite “mistakes.”
- The Slinky: While working on a project to keep ship equipment steady at sea, mechanical engineer Richard James accidentally knocked some of his samples off the shelf. First alarmed and then delighted, he watched as the springs “walked” gracefully down instead of falling. With a loan of $500, he designed a machine that coiled 80 feet of wire into a two-inch spiral. Success came when a department store set up demonstrations and 400 Slinkys were sold within minutes. That was in 1945. The Slinky is still a popular toy and was inducted into the Toy Hall of Fame in 2000.
2. Teflon: A research project for Dupont in 1938 led to the accidental discovery of Teflon. Roy Plunkett was experimenting with gases and left one of the samples out overnight. The next morning he discovered the sample had frozen to a whitish wax. Tempted to discard it, he decided instead to test it to discover any unusual properties. By 1945 Dupont had discovered a myriad of uses for the product trademarked as Teflon from non-stick kitchenware to insulating cable wires. Teflon has produced billions of $$$ for Dupont ~ all because a sample was not handled properly.
3. Vaseline: Chemist Robert Chesebrough was in an oil well when he noticed the workers scooping up a gooey substance and rubbing it on their hands made rough and uncomfortable from the work they did. Curious, Robert took some home to experiment. He extracted petroleum jelly that was usable. After obtaining a patent in 1872, he set up business. By the late 1880’s Chesebrough was selling one jar per minute in America. Time to expand! By 1911, Vaseline had plants in Europe, Canada and Africa.
The take away from all this? Always, always think outside the box. Explore options. Opportunity lurks in the most unlikely places.
No collaboration, no brainstorming, not a lot of research – just an accident that turned out great. Think outside the box indeed!