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"The little-known stories behind well-known inventions"

Accidental inventions     By Paul Niemann

[MARCH 2, 2006]  When asked to name the greatest of all inventions, Mark Twain replied, "Accident."

Some of the more interesting stories on new inventions are about the ones created by accident. An "accidental invention" can be born when one inventor develops a product and another person finds a use for it; it can be developed by one of the largest companies in the world and marketed by an outside entrepreneur after the company fails to find a use for it; or it can simply have an employee change the composition of it by accident and in the process give it its most important attribute.

Accidental inventions are all around us, and today we examine three popular products with interesting and different backgrounds.

First up are the Post-It Notes from 3M. Art Fry, a researcher at 3M in the 1970s, specialized in developing new products. One of his colleagues had developed a certain adhesive for use in 3M's glues, but he just couldn't get it to stick. Four years later, when Fry was trying to come up with a way to bookmark certain pages in his hymnal at church, he had a "eureka" moment and thought that using the adhesive his colleague had developed earlier just might work. It turned out that it was strong enough to hold the bookmarks in place, yet weak enough that it would allow them to be removed when necessary. The rest, as we all know, is history. This was in 1980, and Post-Its were chosen as 3M's Outstanding New Product a year later. Millions of Post-It Notes have been sold each year since.

What a silly idea!

Back in 1944, during World War II, the United States government asked several large companies to try to make a synthetic rubber for airplane tires, soldiers' boots and other uses. James Wright, an engineer at General Electric, developed a new type of rubber substance that bounced. After the war, GE tried to find a use for this gooey material but couldn't think of any. Four years later, an entrepreneurial shop owner named Peter Hodgson came up with an idea for it, bought the rights to it, packaged it in an egg-shaped container, gave it a fun name and began selling it by the truckload.

What was this accidental invention?

It was Silly Putty, and it has been a big hit in the 51 years since its debut.

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Sometimes it's better to be lucky than good

More than 100 years ago, another invention with an interesting story behind it popped up in Cincinnati, Ohio. While Ivory soap wasn't an accidental invention, the characteristic for which it's known was an accidental discovery.

An employee who was in charge of the soap-making machine forgot to shut it off one day before he went to lunch. The additional mixing time caused the soap to become puffed up with air. Since it didn't affect the soap, they decided to ship it to their customers. Later, much to their surprise, they began to receive requests from customers for more of "the floating soap." The additional air made the soap lighter than air, causing it to float in water.

These are just a few of the many accidental inventions or discoveries that have become popular; others include aspirin, X-rays, Frisbees, Velcro, penicillin, Coca-Cola and the Slinky, according to the book "Mistakes That Worked."

One thing that most accidental inventions have in common is that people did not realize they wanted these inventions until they actually saw them being used. The products weren't created to solve a specific need, but in the process they filled a need that people didn't even know they had.

So the next time you see a product and ask yourself what the inventor must have been thinking, keep in mind that it might, with a little tweaking, someday become a great invention.

[Paul Niemann]

Paul Niemann may be reached at You can learn more about Invention Mysteries by visiting the official Invention Mysteries website.

Copyright Paul Niemann 2006

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