It’s hard to believe that some of the most essential items that we use everyday were actually invented entirely by chance. If you’ve ever wondered how someone came up with the idea of Post-it Notes or a microwave oven, you might be surprised to learn that the inventors had something entirely different in mind when they started out. Some of the most popular children’s toys were the outcome of science experiments gone wrong, or a slip-up on the part of an engineer.
Many of today’s most popular products, generating millions or even billions in gross sales, were once the unintended results of happy accidents. Did you know that one little spill led to the creation of a top-selling line of stain repellants? Or, that a chef came up with one of the world’s most popular snacks to please one picky customer? Can you guess why some men were so pleasantly surprised by one particular side effect of an experimental blood pressure medication, so much so that it was reformulated and went on to become the first erectile dysfunction treatment on the market?
The entrepreneurial world is full of surprises. Sometimes, success is the result of a lucky break rather than any specific strategy. One twist of fate can lead a blue-collar worker to head up a thriving cereal corporation, or turn a naval engineer into a prosperous toy salesman.
Here are 10 products that came into fruition purely by chance. Many of these unplanned inventions have become so commonplace in society, we couldn’t imagine life without them
10. Viagra – Conceived as Heart Disease Medicine
Viagra, the infamous little blue pill used to treat erectile dysfunction, was once intended to treat a totally different health condition. In 1991, chemists were developing a pill to combat ailments associated with heart disease. The pill turned out to be completely unsuccessful for that purpose. However, test subjects experienced a very surprising side effect after taking the pill. And so, a breakthrough medication that enhanced the sex lives of millions of people was born. The FDA approved the drug, later named Viagra, in 1998. To this day, Viagra remains one of Pfizer’s bestselling products, with overall revenue in the billions.
9. Corn Flakes – Boiled Wheat Gone Stale
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was a Seventh Day Adventist and followed the vegetarian diet that his religion required. Kellogg also worked for the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan. In need of something cheap to feed to his charges, and hoping to expand his limited plant-based diet, he began experimenting with various foods.
After accidentally letting some boiled wheat go stale, Kellogg and his brother Will tried to revitalize it by rolling the wheat into dough. The attempt was futile but the brothers refused to let the stale wheat go to waste. They decided to toast it instead and were impressed by the tasty result. The popularity of toasted corn flakes soon caught on and they were patented under the name Granose. In 1906, Will founded the Kellogg’s company. His brother John refused to join the business because Will added sugar to the recipe. A staunch religious man, John considered sugar a dangerous aphrodisiac.
8. Rogaine – Conceived as Blood Pressure Medicine
Viagra isn’t the only accidental discovery to benefit middle-aged men. Rogaine also started out as a blood pressure medicine with an unexpected, but welcome side effect. Researchers discovered that the drug Minoxidil, now the active ingredient in Rogaine, caused body hair to thicken and darken. Many patients were pleasantly surprised by the regrowth of hair on their heads. When hair began to grow more in unwanted areas, they weren’t so thrilled. The drug was reformulated so that it could be applied directly to the scalp. The FDA approved Rogaine in 1998 and it went on to become one of the top-selling hair regrowth products on the market.
7. Silly Putty – Conceived as a Synthetic Leather Substitute
Today it’s one of the most popular children’s toys in existence, but during World War II, Silly Putty was the weird result of a failed experiment. James Wright, an inventor working for General Electric, was trying to create a synthetic leather substitute. When he poured boric acid into silicone oil, he was left with a polymerized substance that could be stretched, bounced and broken. At that point, the oddly textured goo was considered useless. It wasn’t until 1950 that a marketing guru named Peter Hodgson envisioned it as a children’s toy. Since its launch, more than 300 million packages of Silly Putty have been sold.
6. Play Doh – Cleaning Wallpaper?
Play Doh is another silly kid’s toy that was originally intended for an adult purpose: cleaning wallpaper. Brothers Noah McVicker and Joseph McVicker invented Silly Putty in 1956 and patented it that same year. However, the product was never marketed as wallpaper cleaner. The brothers had a whole new idea when a teacher complained that she didn’t like the hard clay her students had to use. Noah and Joseph offered to supply schools in Cincinnati with a superior, more pliable product. Demand for the doughy concoction continued to grow until Hasbro marketed it and branded it under the name Play Doh.
5. Potato Chips – Satisfying a Picky Patron
The creation of the world’s most addictive snack can be traced back to one picky eater and one patient chef. George Crum, a cook at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York, had a very difficult customer. The patron often sent his food back, complaining that his fried potatoes were too soggy. Crum decided to slice the potatoes very thin and fry them in hot oil, sprinkling some salt on them at the end. The fussy customer was finally pleased and “Saratoga Chips” quickly became a popular snack all over New England. Eventually, potato chips were a staple in almost every American household.
We can thank Laura Scudder for inventing the airtight bag in 1920. She came up with the idea to iron two sheets of wax paper together, creating a bag that could keep chips fresher for much longer. Up until 1920, potato chips were kept in barrels and tins, and went stale very quickly.
4. Microwave oven – What’s a Radarange?
The idea for a microwave oven was born in 1945. Percy Spencer, an engineer employed by Raytheon, was experimenting with something called magnetron, a vacuum tube that emits microwaves. As he was working, he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket had started to melt. Curious to see what other items the radiation would “cook,” he tried an experiment with popcorn. When the kernels popped, Spencer knew he was on to something. Raytheon built the first microwave in 1947 and it was called the Radarange. The original microwave measured over five feet tall, weighed 750 pounds and cost a whopping $5,000. Due to its massive size and steep price, the Radarange didn’t catch on with consumers. It wasn’t until 1967 that a much smaller, countertop version became available at a more reasonable price ($495).
3. Post-it Notes – Weak Adhesive Accident
If you have a hard time remembering anything without the help of a Post-it Note, you have two people to thank for its invention. A researcher working at 3M Laboratories, Spencer Silver, had accidentally created a weak adhesive in 1968. Silver’s formula stuck to various objects and could be pulled right off without leaving a mark. At that time, the company saw no need for it. It wasn’t until six years later that a colleague of Spencer’s, Arthur Fry, thought of a way to put it to use. He applied the adhesive to bookmarks, which he then placed in his choir hymnal in order to hold his place. Fry proposed his idea to 3M and Post-it Notes eventually debuted on the market in 1980.
2. Scotchgard – Jet Fuel Resistor
Silver and Fry weren’t the first employees at 3M to accidentally create a revolutionary product. In the 1950s, Patsy Sherman, a chemist at 3M, was trying to develop a rubber substance that was resistant to jet fuel. In the midst of an experiment, one of the lab assistants accidentally dropped a glass bottle containing a latex mixture on Sherman’s canvas shoe. Her entire shoe was stained, except for one spot, which remained perfectly clean. Retracing their steps, Sherman was able to isolate the stain-resistant compound. Scotchgard, 3M’s first stain repellant, was born. Perhaps as an ode to Sherman’s fruitful accident, the name Scotchgard is purposely misspelled.
1. Slinky – Stabilize Naval Equipment
The Slinky, one of the world’s silliest children’s toys, was the unintended result of a very serious endeavor. In 1943, an engineer named Richard James was determined to create a spring that could stabilize and support equipment on naval battleships. While he was working, a tension spring accidentally fell on the ground. Much to his amusement, the spring continued to bounce around and James had the idea for a toy. It took him a year to find the right combination of wires and tensions to create a gadget that could go down staircases. James’ wife, Betty, is the one who came up with the name Slinky. In 1945, James set up his own display at a local department store and sold 400 Slinkys (for $1 each) in 90 minutes. By the end of the year, James had sold over 20,000 units. He eventually opened his own machine shop in Albany, New York, and sold more than 100 million Slinkys within the first two years of production.