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My Favorite Accidental Inventions

(Photo by angela n.'s photostream - Flickr)

Most of us think that inventors have a grand vision of how they want to change our lives and set out to create the next great mousetrap. In spite of those lofty goals, and apologies to Thomas Edison and other great inventors, here are some of the unknown misfits who just happened to be in the right place at the right time.

Saccharin: The next time you open that little blue or pink packet of sweetener give a silent thank you to Constantin Fahlberg. In 1879 Fahlberg was looking for additional uses for coal tar. He spent the day working and experimenting with the product then went home but forgetting to do one thing that changed history for the sweeter. He forgot to wash his hands. Noticing that he was the only one at the table eating especially sweet rolls, he realized that something on his hands were affecting the taste. And the rest is history.

Potato Chips: You wouldn’t think a customer complaint would lead to a food that almost everyone has tried from time to time. George Crum was working as a cook at the time and an irate customer kept sending french fries back for being too soggy. Frustrated George decided he would trim the potatoes so thin that it would not be possible for them to absorb enough oil to be soggy. The thin chips worked, the customer was happy and the rest is history.

Popsicle: Every kid in America has enjoyed this frozen treat on a stick. You can thank Frank Epperson for accidentally leaving a flavored drink on his porch overnight during freezing weather. And, realizing what he had when he found it. My favorite flavor, growing up, was banana.

Coke: If Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton had not been looking for a headache cure the world would not be enjoying “The Real Thing.” There have been all sorts of stories about the ingredients in Coke. Everything from cocaine to arsenic has been mentioned. No one really knows since the Coke formula is the most guarded secret in the business world. So secret in fact it’s not even patented for fear of others copying it. After eight years of sales in drug stores and soda fountains it was eventually bottled and sold to the world. And the rest is history.

The Pacemaker: Reaching in a box and retrieving the wrong thing changed the lives of millions with heart problems. American engineer Wilson Greatbatch  was working on a circuit to help record fast heart sounds. He reached into his transistor box for a 10,000-ohm and accidentally got a 1-megaohm resistor. As we all know they all look alike. When he activated his circuit it pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds then rested for 1 second then pulsed again. Then it repeated. Greatbatch had accidentally invented a perfect heartbeat. And the rest is history.

Penicillin: If you want to be rich; leave a mess when you go on vacation. That’s the tip from Alexander Fleming. In 1928 he failed to clean up his workstation before going on vacation. On his return he noticed that fungus had grown on some of his cultures. He also noticed that bacteria didn’t like those cultures and that was the birth of the first antibiotic. And the rest is history.

Some Final Thoughts

Obviously there are many more accidental inventions than the ones I’ve listed here. I guess the point of this particular blog is that things are always there. They are always waiting for us to find them. Many people have left drinks outside overnight in freezing weather. Others, looking for one thing, discovered something completely different. Pay more attention to things around you. Who knows, you may come up with the next big thing. Let’s just hope you know what it is when you find it.

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