From Velcro to Viagra: 10 products that were invented by accident

We tend to hold history's inventors in high esteem, praising their achievements as the fruit of ingenuity, insight, and painstaking research. But, as Robert Hume reveals, many products through history were stumbled upon merely by chance…

Coca-cola, invented in 1886. (SSPL/Getty Images)

1) Potato crisps (1853)

One version of events is that George Crum, a Native-American/African-American chef at Moon’s Lake House Lodge, an upmarket resort hotel in Saratoga Springs, New York, faced an awkward customer one day in 1853. One source names this customer as railroad magnate Cornelius Vanderbilt.

Whoever it was complained that Crum’s Moon’s fried potatoes, the house specialty, were too thick, too soggy, and too bland, and insisted they be replaced. Although Crum did his best to make a thinner batch, the customer complained they were still not to his liking.

Not taking these criticisms too well, Crum decided to teach him a jolly good lesson: he sliced a potato wafer-thin, fried it until it was so brittle that a fork would shatter it, and loaded it with salt. But far from hating the fries, the customer took one bite after another, saying they were absolutely delicious, and ordered more. Word spread quickly, and Crum went on to market his ‘Saratoga Chips’ and set up his own restaurant.

 

2) Saccharin, an artificial sweetener (1877)

One night in 1877, Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg was so engrossed in his research that he lost track of the time and had to rush home for dinner from his laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, without taking a moment to wash his hands.

At the dinner table he picked up a home-baked bread roll, took a bite out of it and hastily put it down again. Something was terribly wrong – the roll tasted sweet. Then Fahlberg recalled how, earlier that day, he had spilt an experimental compound over his hands. They were still covered with a mystery chemical that made everything taste sweet. 

Excited to think what he may have discovered, Fahlberg left his dinner and hurried back to the laboratory, where he had been examining the constituents of coal tar. He promptly tasted everything on his worktable – all the beakers and dishes he had used for his experiments. Finally, he found the source: an overboiled beaker.

Just imagine – if Fahlberg had washed his hands before leaving his laboratory, the world might be without his zero-calorie artificial sweetener.

 

3) Coca-Cola (1886)

While trying to find a cure for headaches and hangovers, chemist John Pemberton from Atlanta, Georgia, otherwise known as ‘Doc’, concocted a syrup cordial made from wine and coca extract, which he called ‘Pemberton’s French Wine Coca’.

In 1885, at the height of the temperance movement in US, Atlanta banned the sale of alcohol, forcing Pemberton to produce a purely coca-based version of the syrup that needed to be diluted. The story goes that one day a careless barman at a soda fountain nearby accidentally spritzed it with ice-cold soda water from the fountain instead of tap water.

Others believe that Pemberton ordered this to be done deliberately, and had organised runners to take small samples to Willis Venables’ soda fountain in downtown Atlanta so that taste tests could be undertaken.

Either way, customers gave it the thumbs up, and the ever-popular beverage was born.

Label of 'French Wine Coca' drink in 1885 made by Pemberton (inventor of Coca-Cola). (Photo by Apic/Getty Images)

 

4) X-rays (1895)

In his darkened laboratory in 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen was experimenting with cathode ray tubes – similar to our fluorescent light tubes – in order to investigate how electricity passes through gases. He carefully evacuated a cathode tube of air, filled it with a special gas, and passed a high voltage electric current through it.  

To Röntgen’s surprise, a screen situated a few feet away from the tube suddenly gave off a green, fluorescent glow. This was odd, because the cathode ray tube emitting light was surrounded by thick, black cardboard. The only explanation was that invisible (X) rays produced by the tube were somehow passing through the card and reaching the screen. 

Using his wife, Bertha, as a guinea pig, Röntgen found that these rays would pass through the tissue of her hand, leaving the bones visible. News of Röntgen’s discovery spread quickly throughout the world. Within a year these hitherto unknown x-rays were being used to diagnose bone fractures.

 

5) Ice cream cone (1904)

By the end of the 19th century, when ice cream became cheap enough for ordinary people to afford, paper, glass and metal were commonly used to hold the treat. Vendors would scoop the ice cream into a cup and buyers would pay a penny to lick it clean before giving it back. Sometimes customers walked off with the cups, or they would slip through their fingers and break.

At the 1904 World Fair at St Louis, Missouri, there were more than 50 ice cream vendors and more than a dozen waffle stands. It was hot, and ice creams sold well; much less so the hot waffles. When ice cream vendor Arnold Fornachou ran out of paper cups, the man in the booth next to him, who sold waffles – a Syrian man named Ernest Hamwi – came to his rescue by rolling up one of his waffles into a funnel to put ice cream in. That waffle became the first edible ice cream cone.

c1920s, woman in the US eating ice cream cone. (Photo by H Armstrong Roberts/Retrofile/Getty Images)

 

6) Penicillin (1928)

On 3 September 1928, while clearing out his laboratory at St Mary’s Hospital, London, after returning from a holiday, Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming noticed something very odd: a blue-green mould had contaminated a petri dish he had stacked in a corner, unwashed, before leaving.

Fleming was about to throw away the culture when he noticed that the mould appeared to be dissolving the staphylococcus bacterium on the dish, creating a germ-free circle around the mould. Somehow, a mould spore must have fallen into the culture – perhaps from an open window, or possibly when Fleming had opened the door to go downstairs for a coffee – and started to grow. After further tests, Fleming discovered that it was something in the mould that had stopped the growth of bacteria.

If he had been in less of a hurry to go on holiday, Fleming might have washed up the dish and been none the wiser, and we would not today have one of the most widely used antibiotics in the world.

 

7) Microwave oven (1946)

While testing microwaves in front of a radar set in 1946, Second World War engineer and radar specialist Percy Spencer, who had left school at the age of 12, felt the bar of chocolate in his pocket begin to melt. Thinking that the microwaves might be responsible, he and a group of colleagues began trying to heat other foods to see if a similar warming effect could be observed. 

When Spencer tried popcorn kernels, they ‘popped’ all over the room. Next he decided to heat an egg. Cutting a hole in the side of a kettle, he placed the egg inside and passed microwaves over the top. The egg cooked so quickly he was unable to stop it exploding in another worker’s face as he was looking inside the kettle.

At last there was an alternative to conventional gas and electric ovens. Food could be cooked much faster than people ever dreamed possible. The world’s first microwave oven had arrived.

5 March 1947, a woman using an early microwave at the Ideal Home Exhibition in Olympia, London. (Photo by Harrison /Topical Press Agency/Getty Images)

 

8) Velcro (1955)

Sixty years ago this year, Velcro was patented. Yet, the ever-popular hook and loop fastener – used the world over for anything from stopping jackets gaping open to preventing cushions from sliding off chairs – was actually the result of a mishap. 

In 1955, after taking his dog for a walk in the woods, Swiss electrical engineer George De Mestral found that burrs from the burdock plant had clung to his clothes – as well as to his dog’s fur. Observing the burrs under a microscope, De Mestral found thousands of tiny hooks that could easily attach to the small loops found in everyday clothing. This inspired him to make 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.

De Mestral trialled several materials to make hooks and loops of his own so he could see which formed the strongest bond. He found that nylon was perfect. And so Velcro – a combination of ‘velvet’ and ‘crochet’ – was invented.

 

9) Post-it notes (1968 and 1974)

In 1968, chemist Spencer Silver, who worked at the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company at St Paul, Minnesota, was supposed to be inventing a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry, but he ended up inventing a weak one. Strangely, the tiny acrylic spheres of which this adhesive was composed were almost indestructible, and would stick well after several uses.

At first, Silver wanted to sell the adhesive as a sticky surface that people could mount on noticeboards.  He envisioned them sticking notes to the board and peeling them off later, without ripping their nails to pieces on drawing pins. The idea did not catch on.

Years later, in 1974, chemist Art Fry was getting fed up with his paper bookmarks dropping from his hymnbook as he sang in a church choir in St Paul. Recalling a seminar he had recently been to at 3M (previously known as the Minnesota Mining and Manufacturing Company), an idea suddenly struck him: why not put some of Dr Silver’s ‘low-tack’ adhesive onto slips of paper?

Fry began cutting down and coating with glue scraps of yellow paper found in the laboratory next door. Initially the product flopped, but later a batch of free samples was handed out to the public and proved so popular that more than 90 per cent of people given them ordered more. Standard Post-it notes have to this day remained yellow.

 

10) Viagra (1998)

Clinical trials at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer had originally studied Viagra’s use as a cardiovascular drug to lower blood pressure, expand blood vessels, and treat angina. Although results proved disappointing, in one trial male volunteers were embarrassed to find themselves with an unusual side effect after taking the medication – erections that were “harder, firmer and lasted longer” than any they had ever experienced before, reported Dr Brian Klee, senior medical director at Pfizer.

“None of us at Pfizer thought much of the side-effect at the time” said Ian Osterloh, a clinical researcher for Pfizer, but the company could scarcely market Viagra for angina. It seemed that erectile dysfunction, like angina, might also be caused by blood not flowing quickly enough through narrow blood vessels.

“We were on to something which could only be described as special,” explained Chris Wayman, a senior scientist at Pfizer: the first oral treatment for erectile dysfunction. A whole new market now opened up for the little blue pill – drug UK92480 suddenly became Viagra, the fastest-selling drug of all time. 

Dr Robert Hume was head of the history department at Clarendon House Grammar School from 1988–2010, and now regularly writes features for the Irish Examiner. His most recent publications include short historical biographies for children aged 12–16 about characters on the sidelines of history.

In addition to Perkin Warbeck – The Boy Who Would Be King (Short Books, 2005), Hume is the author of Dr Joseph Bell: The Original Sherlock Holmes (2005); Equiano: The Slave with the Loud Voice (2007); Mary Shelley and the Birth of Frankenstein (2009); Thomas Crapper: Lavatory Legend (2009); and Clearing the Bar: One Girls’ Olympic Dream (2012).

We use cookies to improve your experience of our website. Cookies perform functions like recognising you each time you visit and delivering advertising messages that are relevant to you. Read more here