Looking for something often results in nothing, but stumbling on to something while looking for nothing can change the world forever. Consider the following products and how your life might have been different without them coming about by sheer coincidence.
Dr. Spencer Silver, a chemist working for 3M, was trying to develop a super adhesive when, in 1968, he instead ended up developing an adhesive that would barely hold paper onto another paper. Silver considered the super weak glue a useless failure and abandoned it.
In 1974, Arthur Fry, another 3M scientist, heard about Silver's weak adhesive and thought it might be useful for a new type of bookmark (Fry was frustrated that paper bookmarks kept falling from his hymn book). Fry's original product was called Press 'n Peel bookmarks and failed commercially. It was not until the product got reimagined and relaunched as Post-It Notes in 1979 that the compound finally saw commercial success.
Considering the complexity of x-ray, it is hard to believe that its discovery merely happened by accident – but it did! In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was carrying out a routine experiment on cathode rays when he discovered that his cathode emitter was radiating light on a fluorescent cardboard even though a thick screen separated the two. Further exploration led Roentgen to produce images through radiation.
In 1943, Navy Engineer Richard James was working with torsion springs to protect sensitive shipboard instruments aboard naval vessels. While going about his work, he accidentally dropped one of these springs. The bouncy movement amused him and he realized that with the right property of steel and the right tension, he could make the spring walk forward – and that such a thing would make for a cool toy.
After buying a coil-winding machine and experimenting with varying degrees of tension, one year later James had perfected what would become famous as the slinky – so named by his wife to represent the sleek and graceful way the toy moved. When the slinky went for sale in 1945, it was an instant hit with kids and the rest is history.
Constantine Fahlberg, a researcher at John Hopkins University, was experimenting on new ways to use coal tar in 1879 and after a long day at the laboratory, he went home and immediately grabbed some of his wife’s biscuits. He noticed that the biscuits were much sweeter than usual and upon scrutiny, the sweetness came from his hand after working in the lab. The sweet ingredient was eventually known as saccharine.
The color mauve
In 1856, 18-year-old chemist, William Perkin, was challenged by his professor August Wilhelm Von Hofmann to synthetize quinine which was and still partly is the medication to cure malaria.
Perkin failed his task. But he noticed that when he was cleaning his flask with alcohol, he had a purple-like color dye on it as a result. "When life gives you lemons, make lemonade" – he then decided to perfect this mysterious new dye and eventually patent it.
This resulted in what is recognized as arguably the first mass produced synthetic dye – one that would quickly take over the fashion world and create a race to create synthetic dyes for the rest of the color spectrum.
Noah McVicker worked for soap manufacturer Kutol Products when they received a request to create a product that could clean coal residue from wallpaper without damaging it – and the task fell to him. He then devised a non-toxic, non-staining, reusable modeling compound that accomplished the task, but the invention of washable vinyl-based wallpaper quickly made it irrelevant.
Fortunately for McVicker and the apparently useless product, he was told by his brother that his brother in law had read an article about how to use putty for arts and craft projects in schools. They quickly decided this was an idea worthy of exploration. In 1956, the McVickers formed the Rainbow Crafts Company to make and sell Play-Doh to school supplies manufacturers. In 1958, Play-Doh's sales had already reached nearly $3 million.
Dr. Harry Coover decided in 1941 that he wanted to find a way to create clear plastic sights that could be put on guns for allied soldiers fighting in WWII. But the compound he invented, cyanoacrylate, was not good for that. Even after realizing it was an interesting kind of glue, he didn’t take much notice and promptly forgot about it.
Nine years later, when he was working at Kodak, Coover was the supervisor of a project looking to create a heat resistant acrylate polymer that could be used for jet canopies. Fred Joyner was one of the people working on that project, and while playing around with different ideas, he ended up using ethyl cyanoacrylate between a pair of refractometer prisms. These then got stuck together firmly.
Coover noticed that it was a variation of his own creation that had done this, and he started to see its potential – now as a bonding compound. In 1958, Eastman Kodak started selling the product as Eastman #910. It was not until later that it was renamed Super Glue – simply because that is what people using it called it.
New York-based Chef George Crum was serving French fries in 1853 but one customer kept sending them back. Crum was extremely annoyed that he sliced the potatoes thinly and fried them until they were hard. The customer loved them and, many years later, so do millions of people around the world.
Harry Brearly was an English metallurgist who was trying to develop a corrosion-resistant gun barrel. In 1912, after months of failed experiments, he was getting frustrated and took a break to sort out all the scrap metal he had accumulated. He was surprised to then find a metal piece entirely free of rust – while all the other old junk had already rusted or blemished.
Unfortunately, Brearly didn't know which of his experiments had produced this superior new steel. He set about investigating the piece, including exposing it to a dilute solution of nitric acid with alcohol, to find out which of his alloys it contained. He perfected it within three weeks and named it Rustless Steel – later renamed Stainless Steel by one of his friends who found use for it in the cutlery industry.
Stainless Steel was initially used for fine cutlery, but soon spread to just about everything; surgical utensils, tools, cookware, electronics, construction materials, etc.
In 1928, Scientist Alexander Fleming gave up on his “wonder drug” experiments and threw everything away. One day, Fleming noticed a mold in a contaminated petri dish he discarded. This mold was dissolving all the bacteria around it. Fleming grew the mold himself and found that it was a powerful antibiotic – penicillin.
The invention of plastic has to be divided in two camps: organic plastic and synthetic plastic.
Organic plastic came about thanks to Alexander Parkes from Birmingham, England all the way back in 1862. It was made of cellulose on which a special treatment was applied. Once heated it could be molded into any shape and retain its form once cooled. Parkes called it Parkesine and he thought it could be a replacement for rubber – but it didn’t catch on partly because it was incredibly expensive to produce at mass scale.
When it comes to synthetic plastic, its invention in 1907 was thanks to Leo Baekeland, a Belgium-born chemist that immigrated to New York in the late 19th century. It is considered an accidental invention because Baekeland's original goal was to make an alternative to shellac, a natural resin obtained from insects that can be used for things like varnish.
Instead of a new type of varnish, Baekeland realized that he had created a "material of 1,000 uses" that could replace Parkesine and anything else up to that point in any way similar to plastic. His Bakelite could be molded into anything and would retain the molded shape once it cooled off. It was cheap to produce and it was extremely durable since unlike Parkesine, it was not biodegradable.
While the world would had been a better place if someone had figured out how to make the bio-degradable Parkesine plastic work at scale, there is little doubt that plastic is the most important invention of the modern era. Even in the 21th century, we have yet to find a way to replace it. Instead we now have scientists focused on making it as recyclable as possible and devising ways to dispose our enormous loads of the stuff in a safer way – which goes to show just how important plastic is to our world.