Sliced bread, the wheel, the printing press — all these inventions were purposefully calculated and hatched in the brains of humans. But a lot of the time, our greatest discoveries happen totally by accident: clever people stumbled upon a useful product, saw visions of dollar signs, and raked in the rewards.
In fact, some of the most useful and beloved things we use every day were discovered or created by complete flukes that ultimately changed the lives of their lucky founders. Let these examples of ingenious mistakes inspire you to think outside the box, and look for your own million dollar idea…
1. Popsicles: Thanks to the distracted nature of 11-year-old Frank Epperson, the world has Popsicles. One night, he mindlessly swirled his soda pop with water, and promptly forgot about it, leaving the cup outside overnight where it froze. In the morning, the frozen treat was born, and he marketed his invention as an adult.
2. Post-its: Often people come up with billion dollar ideas and don’t even know it. Spencer Silver, inventor for the manufacturer 3M, came up with the mini adhesive papers, but the company was stumped to find a use for them.
Fast forward several years, Spencer was leading his church choir. The handy notes popped into his head as a useful tool for marking hymnal pages, and the rest is history.
3. Velcro: Dogs are angels of the universe, so it’s surprising to no one that they helped invent a useful product. After taking his pooch on a walk through the woods, Swiss scientist George de Mestral was bothered by the burs stuck to his pal’s fur.
Mestral examined the burs under a microscope and made an interesting discovery: Hook-like clasps were responsible for their annoyingly secure staying power. He took inspiration from the burs, and within a few years, developed velcro.
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4. Bubble Wrap: Engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes attempted to push the boundaries on what wallpaper could be, and designed a 3D-textured variety from shower curtains. The product didn’t perform how they intended. So, they realized it’s protective properties, and used it to package electronics.
5. Teflon: Inventor Roy J Plunkett was tinkering away, attempting to develop a better way to keep refrigerators cool, but instead he made a bit of a whoopsie. Roy had a stroke of genius and coated a pan in synthetic chemicals, resulting in teflon.
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6. Super Glue: Harvey Coover accidentally created a super sticky substance. Rather than seeing dollar signs, he was at first too annoyed with its adhesive qualities to continue handling it. Years later, however, while assembling airplane parts, Harvey revisited his tacky mixture.
Fusing pieces of the airplane together was just the beginning. Dubbed “airplane glue” originally, it went mainstream and pretty much changed the world. That is, until some hooligans discovered sniffing the mixture resulted in a high. From then on, it had to be regulated.
7. Play-Doh: Sometimes inventions exist with one purpose, but with a bit of ingenuity, their best use is revealed. A special kind of soap dough was used as a cleaning tool to remove soot from fireplaces. But, when homes switched over to electric heating, the creator, Joseph McVicker, took a financial nosedive.
In classic sister fashion, McVicker’s sibling saved the day. She was a schoolteacher, so she brought the dough into her classroom for students to use as modeling clay. McVicker seized the opportunity and re-marketed the product as a toy instead of a cleaner.
8. Microwave: Genius scientist, or pure simpleton, you probably enjoy chocolate. That’s true of physicist Percy Spencer, who pocketed a decadent bar of deliciousness while attempting to create a new vacuum tube.
In the midst of his tinkering, the chocolate bar melted, and he suspected it might be heat waves was coming from his vacuum’s radar. Testing his theory, he quickly grabbed some popcorn kernels. He didn’t have to wait long, then…POP! Percy had a microwave on his hands!
9. Ice Cream Cone: There were too many screams for ice creams at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair. Rapidly running out of bowls and spoons, the booth workers were desperate for an alternative serving option.
Conveniently, next door was a zalabia booth, which is a crispy Syrian pastry. Ernest A. Hamwi made the bold move to roll his pastry into a cone-like vessel to serve the sweet treat.
10. Coca-Cola: Prohibition meant people had to find ways to make products without alcohol. So when John Pemberton whipped up a batch of his famous “Wine Cocoa,” a cure for headaches, he substituted sugars and carbonated water for the booze. Without hard liquor, his beverage became known as a soft drink.
Miriam / Flickr
11. Frisbee: Back in the day, the flying discs were made of metal, so imagine the danger a casual game could inflict. College students at Yale used empty Frisbie Pie Company tins to fling around for their own amusement.
12. Lysol: The Windex Dad in My Big Fat Greek Wedding used cleaning products in crazy ways, but he actually wasn’t far off from their original intended purpose. Lysol began as a personal hygiene product. It was marketed towards women as birth control, and post-intercourse health treatment. Thank goodness times have changed!
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13. Listerine: Conversely, some products started as cleaning products. Listerine was on the market as a floor cleaner in 1879. Somewhere along the line, a brave, stinky-breathed individual made a gamble and gulped the agent. Luckily, it only resulted in a sparkling fresh mouth!
14. Chocolate Chip Cookies: While whipping up a batch of chocolate cookies, Ruth Wakefield ran out of cocoa powder. As a substitute, she broke baker’s chocolate into chunks and crossed her fingers that they would melt. They didn’t, chocolate chip cookies were born, and she started a little company called Tollhouse.
15. Potato Chips: Chef George Crum had had enough of one demanding customer. The guest sent their crispy fried potatoes back to the kitchen one too many times, claiming them to be “soggy.” In an iconic passive-aggressive outburst, George sliced the spuds into wafer-thin bites and deep fried them with salt. The result was the beloved crunchy junk food.
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Of course, for every brilliant invention, there is another invention that didn’t quite make the mark. Just take a look at these strange historical inventions of the early 1900s to get an idea of how many inventions went from superstar to laughing stock.
1. Bed Piano: Today, when you’re sick in bed, you might pull out a laptop and blow through a few seasons of a TV show on Netflix; in 1935, you pulled out your bed piano and knocked out a few afternoon symphonies.
2. Television Glasses: Hugo Gernsback, the man known today as “The Father of Science Fiction,” dared to dream of strapping a television set to his face in 1963 — so he made it happen (and later inspired future 3D glasses, too).
3. Man from Mars Radio Hat: Speaking of entertainment on your head, in 1949, Victor T. Hoeflinch created this hat, which allowed wearers to listen to the radio on the go, so long as they didn’t mind wearing a hat that wasn’t exactly a fashion statement.
4. Dimple Maker: In the ’30s, a smile was nothing without a set of dimples to go with it. But the dimple-less were not the hopeless: the Dimple Maker could force dimples onto their smiles by digging into their cheekbones. It did not work well.
5. The First PET Scan Device: As if going in for a PET scan wasn’t scary enough, the first machine capable of performing one was this wire-wrapped monstrosity, developed at the Brookhaven National Laboratory in Long Island, New York.
6. Portable Sauna: Back in 1962, a Finnish inventor realized that being unable to step into a sauna wherever he went was comparable to actual torture. So he created the portable sauna so he could live every moment in hot, steamy bliss.
7. Sunscreen Vending Machine: Tennis courts, swimming pools, and beaches of the 1940s offered this vending machine, which dispensed little globs of sunscreen right into your hands. Honestly, weird as this was, it could come in handy today!
8. Cone Mask: The inventor of these masks wanted to protect the wearers’ faces from things like hail and rain. Somehow, getting pelted with rain was a big enough problem that he couldn’t just, you know, tilt his head down like three inches
9. Pedal Skates: In 1913, Charles A. Nordling understood people look for any excuse possible not to walk, so he created the pedal skates. A bit cumbersome, yeah, but unlike many other items on this list, they nobly served their purpose for a while.
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10. Cigarette Pack Holder: Because smoking one cigarette at a time was totally inefficient (and totally lame by 1950’s standards), this 1955 invention allowed smokers to stop dreaming about chain smoking an entire pack and start doing it.
11. All-Terrain Car: Invented in 1936, this English automobile ascended and descended slopes as steep as 65 degrees. With, what, 12 tires, it must have cost an absolute fortune to manufacture. Speaking of all-terrain…
12. Cyclomer: With six flotation devices, the cyclomer — also called “The Amphibious Bike — was designed to function on land and in water. In practice, it was clunky on dry land, borderline deadly in the water, and no one liked it much.
13. Goofybike: So the cyclomer didn’t catch on, but that wasn’t the end of all bike-alteration efforts. The Goofybike — seen in Chicago, 1939 — sat four people, one of which worked a sewing machine that kept the bike’s weight evenly distributed.
14. Pedestrian Shield: To reduce fatalities, inventors drummed up a shield reminiscent of a train’s cowcatcher to slap on the front of automobiles. It doesn’t look like a much better alternative to the front of a car.
15. Fax Newspaper: Imagine just wanting to catch up on your daily news and waiting (and waiting) for the darn newspaper fax to show up! Cool, but a paperboy standing on the corner was probably more efficient.
16. Shower Hood: Marketed as a way to keep your makeup intact, the shower hood prevented water from hitting your hair or face, which kind of defeated the major purpose of taking a shower altogether.
17. The Baby Dangler: Today, naming your device “The Baby Dangler” would make your peers mock you at best and land you in prison at worst; but back in the day, it was the perfect name for a device that strung up a baby between mom and dad.
18. A Radio-Controlled Lawn Mower: The lawn’s not going to mow itself, so why not invent a small mower operated with a remote control? Developed in the 1950s — and later celebrated by British royalty — the device survived time and still exists!
19. Ice Mask: There were plenty of reasons to drink in the 1940s, and inventors knew it. That’s why one developed the ice mask, which advertisers touted as a cure for the morning hangover.
20. Wooden Bathing Suits: These barrel-like suits were invented in 1929 and, allegedly, acted like flotation devices for swimming (wood floats, after all). But they must have been restrictive!