Accidental inventions - The New Indian Express

Accidental inventions

Published: 06th August 2013 08:27 AM

Last Updated: 06th August 2013 08:27 AM

Some of the biggest inventions that helped to change the modern world were not the result of painstaking long hours in laboratories. In fact, some inventions you read about in this article were a matter of sheer chance for some very lucky people.

Below are six accidental inventions that have made a huge difference to mankind.


Saccharine means ‘relating to, or resembling sugar’. Saccharine is an artificial sweetener used for food and drinks. More in use now because of the requirement to make food sweet without adding calories, saccharine has been commercialised by brands like Sweet’N Low.

This substance was discovered in 1878 by a chemist called Constantin Fahlberg, who was working on finding new ways to use coal tar at the Johns Hopkins University. After a hard day at work when he went home for dinner, he noticed the rolls that his wife made were sweeter than usual. She said they tasted normal and that’s when he realised that he had forgotten to wash his hands.

Fahlberg went back to work the next day and figured out that he had invented an artificial sweetener and boy, did his invention come in handy during the Great War when the shortage of sugar happened!


While looking for a substitute for the very expensive shellac, which was used as an insulator in the early 1900s, Leo Hendrik Baekeland invented something that revolutionised the world. His combination of formaldehyde and phenol failed to catch on as a shellac substitute but he discovered that by controlling the temperature and pressure and by adding wood flour, asbestos, or slate dust, the product became malleable yet resistant.

This ‘material of 1,000 uses’ was christened bakelite. It was mouldable, didn’t conduct electricity and was heat resistant. Over the years bakelite was used to make electronics, toys, auto parts, cameras, phones, jewellery… you name it!

This adaptable, light and affordable material was the forerunner of what we now call plastic, which replaced the expensive ivory, wood, and metals pretty fast.

Post-it Notes

Now an essential part of every office’s supplies, post-its actually happened because of an error. Spencer Silver, a chemist working for 3M, the company that makes Post-its, found a ‘low-tack’ glue that was strong enough to stick two sheets of paper together but wasn’t sticky enough to tear them when pulled apart.

He tried to find a marketable use for this poor glue and after many failed attempts, his colleague came up with the idea of sticky bookmarks that wont slip out of the book and lo and behold, the first post-its were born.

Potato Chips

I don’t know how this wasn’t the first invention after the discovery of potatoes but it was only in 1853 that George Crum invented this delicious food item.  Crum was continuously chided for how soggy his French fries were by a patron in his restaurant and he decided to teach him a lesson. Crum cut the potatoes extremely thin, fried them and bathed them in salt. To his surprise, the customer actually relished them more than the French fries. That was how potato chips came into this world and overtook the whole snacking industry!


This modelling clay that children play with was initially manufactured for doing something completely different — cleaning. In the times when coal was used for heating, Noah and Joseph McVicker of Kutol Products, a Cincinnati-based soap manufacturer, created the doughy material to rub the soot off wallpapers.

When the use of coal started diminishing, so did the use for the dough and of course, the company went bankrupt.

In the early 1950s, Joseph McVicker found out that his sister, a schoolteacher, used the material in her classroom as modelling dough and then there was no looking back. The originally off white dough became colourful, aromatic, was named ‘Play-Doh’ and started being marketed as a children’s toy.

Vulcanised Rubber

Goodyear is an extremely popular brand of tyres all over the world. The company is named to honour Charles Goodyear, the accidental inventor of usable rubber, that we use in tyres now. When natural rubber was discovered in the early 1830s, the excitement did not last long because people realised that the rubber cracked in winter and tuned into a liquid goo in summer.

Natural rubber could not stand weather change. Charles Goodyear drove himself to debt trying out expensive experiments to make rubber long-lasting and what actually worked was an accident when he knocked over vials of sulphur, lead and rubber onto a hot stove and he realised that the rubber charred black but did not melt. Furthermore it retained its original springiness.

The transport industry owes its development to Goodyear and his carelessness which never made him a rich  man but immortalised him.

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