It’s not rare to hear of inventors spending years of their life “innovating” something people will find useful and important. Thomas Edison, for example, tried thousands of various light bulb filaments before “discovering” the perfect mixture of tungsten. But sometimes all it takes is a simple strike of a match to light a spark. In fact, some of the most well known inventions of our time are built on an accidental foundation.
Here are 4 accidental inventions that you’re surely familiar with.
The potato chip is the symbol of celebration and festivity. It’s a staple at football games, pool parties, and backyard BBQs. But it didn’t start that way. The potato chip came to life through the vitriol of a famed hotel chef in Saratoga Springs, NY. A diner insulted the chef by complaining that the fried potatoes were too thick, soggy and bland. George Crum (the chef) sought out retribution. He sliced wickedly thin potato slices and doused them with excessive salt. That’ll teach him, is likely what Crum thought. Rather, the patron was obsessed and ordered a second helping. Crum, realizing a good thing when he tasted it, perfected his Saratoga Chip, which became a hit across New England (and later became the potato chip).
Good things happen to those who experiment. That’s certainly what happened to German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen. Röntgen was experimenting with cathode-ray tubes, which work like fluorescent lights. Röntgen placed black cardboard around one of his experimental tubes, discovering that a chemical far away from the light source began to grow. In theory, that cardboard should have prevented any light from escaping. How could a faraway chemical actually glow? Röntgen’s experiments discovered the existence of invisible rays that could pass through paper (and yes, skin). But Röntgen didn’t just discover these rays (which he dubbed X-rays because “X” is the unknown), he thought to use them medically. He captured the first ever X-ray, of his wife’s hand.
Sometimes inventions are created from a collective accident, as is the case with tea bags. Tea and coffee shop merchant Thomas Sullivan used to ship his loose teas around the world in hand-sewn fabric bags. He assumed that his customers would know enough to remove the loose tea from the bags to use. They didn’t. Rather, they used the silk bags because they liked how much easier it was for them to steep their tealeaves. While the concept of tea housed in a bag isn’t new (it dates back to the Tang Dynasty of 618-907), using it in modern times was new. Sullivan pushed his product commercially at the start of the 20th century and changed the way the Western world prepared its tea.
Corn flakes were not meant to be a cereal at all. They were intended to be a bread substitute to complement a vegetarian diet fed to the patients of the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan.
Two brothers (John and William Kellogg) boiled wheat in the hopes of turning it into dough. But they boiled the wheat too long, leaving the brothers with large, flat flakes. The brothers tasted the flakes, and dubbed them delicious. They fed them to the patients at Battle Creek, who fell in love with this new creation so much so that they requested more after leaving the sanitarium. But in a true mark of innovation, Will wondered if their flakes would taste better if they used corn, rather than wheat. The rest is quite simply history.
While some people spend most of their brainpower coming up with new and creative concepts, a large portion of the population wouldn’t dub themselves as inventors. But that doesn’t mean that you’re not a moment away from stumbling upon the next great innovation. Keep your eyes and mind open and you never know what you’ll come across on any given day.