Curiosity is the mother of invention, but sometimes curiosity is not what helped inventors create their famous products. It’s more that they stumble upon those, just making some small modifications before launching them to the public. Of course, these products have become very popular and have made history. We cannot see our world without them. But do you know how they were created and what was the story that led to them? Keep reading to find out more!
Famous Products that Were Born by Mistake
Surprisingly many famous products were created by mistake and nowadays have made an empire of their brands. Maybe with some of them, you already know their story, but others can be a shock. So let’s dive into those products that are here by mistake.
We all love french fries, but there is also another version of fried potatoes called crips. Now they have tons of varieties and are very commercial. But it turns out that they were created due to a demand from a customer in a restaurant. This is the story of how George Crum, a Native-American/African-American chef at Moon’s Lake House Lodge, an upmarket resort hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, received a complaint about his fried potatoes.
According to the customer, they were too thick, too bland, and too soggy, Crum tried his best to make a new batch, but they weren’t what the customer wanted. So Crum was very annoyed with the criticism and decided to play a prank on the customer, making a new and thinner batch that was so crisped that a fork can shatter them, then the batch was loaded with salt and presented to the customer. They love that batch, making the potatoes and Crum popular in the area, but word spread quickly, and soon Crum was opening his restaurant and went to the market with his potatoes.
Saccharine, the artificial sweetener
In 1877 the Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was very late for dinner at home. He rushed to his house from his laboratory at the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, without washing his hands or organizing the laboratory. At home, he sat down to enjoy his dinner with his family, but when he grabbed a home-baked bread roll and took a bite, something was very wrong with it: it tasted sweet. Then Fahlberg remembered that he was doing certain experiments with the constituents of coal tar, even spilling an experimental compound over his hands.
That compound was making everything taste sweet. So he decided to go back to his laboratory and check every plate, beaker, and dish over his worktable. He found out that saccharine was coming from an overboiled cup. He was astonished to discover a new artificial component for food. But think what could happen if Fahlberg finished his experiments on time and washed his hands before going home.
The popular and beloved beverage was at first thought of as a medicine for headaches and hangovers, all this thanks to the idea of the chemist John Pemberton from Atlanta, Georgia, otherwise known as ‘Doc.’ He was making a syrup cordial made from wine and coca plant extract. He even gave a name to his product: ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Coca.’ However, during 1885 and 1886, Atlanta banned the sale of alcohol due to the temperance movement in the US.
This forced Pemberton to create a new version of his product based only on the coca extract needed to be diluted. So far, here is where every historian agrees, but after that, there are several versions of how the final Coca-Cola was born. One of the stories suggests that a barman at a soda fountain nearby mistake spritzed the new product with ice-cold soda water instead of tap water. Some versions stated that Pemberton deliberately ordered the spritz and then took small samples to Willis Venables’ soda fountain downtown to taste test the new product. But some way or another, the public back there accepted the beverage, and that was how Coca-Cola was born because alcohol was banned.
German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was the discoverer and inventor of X-rays in 1895, which are still used even when more than 125 years have passed. This is one of the most important tools in the medical field. However, its discovery was a mistake. Röntgen wasn’t looking for this. He experimented with cathode-ray tubes, pretty similar to fluorescent light tubes, to fulfill his investigation on how electricity passes through gases.
One of his experiments was to evacuate a cathode tube of air and then fill it with a special gas. After that, he passed a high voltage electric current. But he was surprised when a screen a few feet from the tube was giving off green and fluorescent glow, nothing rare considering that this was an experiment, but the tube was surrounded by thick and black cardboard. For Röntgen, the only explanation was that the tube produced invisible rays (called X) capable of passing through the cardboard and reaching the screen.
To study these new rays, the physicist decided to bring his wife Berta and proceed to test them on her hand. He found out that the X-rays could pass through tissue and muscle, showing only the bones. The news of these rays was spread quickly throughout the world, and in less than a year, the x-rays were highly demanded to diagnose bone fractures and other issues
Ice Cream Cone
More than a mistake, the creation of the ice cream cone was a case of taking advantage of what is at hand. At the end of the 19th century the ice cream became cheap and affordable for everybody, but to scoop, some people use containers of paper, glass, or metal. Some of them presented complications, and others were like a returnable bottle, but more times than not, buyers just walked away with the cups.
In 1904 at St. Louis, Missouri World Fair, there were more than 50 vendors of ice cream and like a dozen waffles. Due to the high temperatures, ice cream was highly demanded there. So the vendors were running out of paper cups for it. One of those vendors was Arnold Fornachou, and next to him was a waffles vendor, the Syrian Ernest Hamwi, who saw the desperate situation of Arnold and decided to help him by rolling some waffles up into a funnel to scoop the ice cream there, that was the first edible ice cream cone. After this first try, many cones have come to the market, but it’s still a classic.
This is one of the most famous discoveries by mistake, and it has saved countless lives. After returning from a holiday, the Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming cleaned his laboratory at St Mary’s Hospital in London on September 3, 1928. During this process, he noticed something strange: a petri dish was contaminated with a green-blue mold, all because he didn’t clean his laboratory’s utensils before leaving in a hurry for his holidays.
He was ready to throw away the dish. After all, he was doing a deep cleaning, but he saw that the mold appeared to be dissolving the staphylococcus bacteria on the dish. This was creating a germ-free circle around the mold. The mold spore fell into the culture inside the petri dish and started to grow. Fleming started to do further tests, discovering that something in the mold had stopped the growth of the bacteria. And that was the birth of one of the most used antibiotics globally, just because Fleming was in a hurry and forgot to do the cleaning.
This was a discovery made by Second World War engineer and radar specialist Percy Spencer, who surprisingly dropped out of school at age 12. In 1946 he was investigating microwaves in front of the radar when he realized that the chocolate bar in his pocket was starting to melt. He knew that the only explanation possible for that should be the microwaves. So he began to experiment with microwaves, together with other colleagues, on how to eat more food with them expecting the same warming effect to be produced on that food.
The tests were successful, from popcorn kernels that exploded all over the room; to boiling an egg using a kettle with a hole in the side. The microwaves were passed over the kettle making the egg cooked so quickly that it even exploded in the face of one of Spencer’s workers, that was supervising the kettle close. This was an amazing discovery and a new alternative to conventional gas and electric ovens, cooking food more quickly than other products. Nowadays, the microwave oven is still a great tool in the kitchen.
This idea popped into the Swiss electrical engineer George De Mestral in 1955, after a walk in the woods with his dog. Returning home, he realized that his clothes and his dog’s fur was covered in burrs from the burdock plant. He took those burrs to study them under the microscope and found thousands of tiny hooks that allow the burrs to cling out to pretty much everything, especially the clothing fabric.
This type of natural mechanism inspired De Mestral to come up with a two-sided fastener: “One side with stiff hooks like the burrs, and the other side with soft loops like the fabric of my pants,” he said. After several tests looking out for the perfect material that formed the strongest hold, he saw that nylon was the best material for ‘Velcro,’ a composed word from velvet and crochet.
This is interesting because it takes two different years and inventors together. In 1968 chemist Spencer Silver, who worked at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company at St Paul, Minnesota, was looking for a stronger adhesive for the aerospace industry but ended up with a weaker one. Ironically this one was almost indestructible and stuck well even after several uses; it just didn’t work for big things like spaceships. Silver was the first to have the idea of a noticeboard with this adhesive where people can stick notes and then peel them off. However, the idea wasn’t well received.
Moving forward to 1974, chemist Art Fry was having problems with his paper bookmarks falling from his hymnbook. After all, he was part of the church choir in St. Paul, yes, the same city. Recalling that he was in a seminar at 3M (previously known as Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company), he decided to work on Dr. Silver’s low-tack adhesive and to put some onto slips of papers to prevent them from falling. That was how Fry started cutting down and coating with glue some scraps of yellow paper; at the beginning, he was a flop, but later on, after giving free samples, the product became a hit and so popular that people were requesting more. To this day, post-it notes are still yellow in honor of their first creation, but you can find more types and sizes.
Mistakes, coincidences, and tumble over are why we are now enjoying many of these products and equipment; of course, they have been renovated over time and adapted to modernization, but they are still used and part of our lives. Keep in touch with the magazine to find out more about other interesting things.
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