Five Iconic Items That Were Invented Accidentally


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1)  Super Glue was Invented by Accident, Twice

Super Glue, also known as cyanoacrylate, was originally discovered in 1942 by Dr. Harry Coover, who recently died on March 26th, 2011.  Coover was attempting to make clear plastic gun sights to be put on guns used by Allied soldiers in WWII.  One particular formulation he came up with didn’t work well for gun sights, but worked fantastically as an extremely quick bonding adhesive.  Surprisingly, despite the commercial potential of such a product, Coover abandoned that formulation completely as it obviously wasn’t suitable for his current project, being too sticky. Nine years later, in 1951, working at Eastman Kodak, Dr. Coover was the supervisor of a project looking at developing a heat resistant acrylate polymer for jet canopies.

Fred Joyner was working on that project and at one point used the rediscovered Super Glue and tested it by spreading ethyl cyanoacrylate between a pair of refractometer prisms.  To his surprise, the prisms became stuck very solidly together.  This time, Coover did not abandoned the cyanoacrylate (Super Glue), rather,  he realized the great potential of a product that would quickly bond to a variety of materials and only needed a little water to activate, which generally is provided in the materials to be bonded themselves.

Super Glue was finally put on the market in 1958 by Eastman Kodak and was called the slightly less catchy name of “Eastman #910?”, though they later re-named it “Super Glue”. Eastman #910 was soon licensed to Loctite who then re-branded it again to a somewhat uninspired name of “Loctite Quick Set 404?”. Although, they later developed their own version, calling it “Super Bonder”.  By the 1970s, numerous manufactures of cyanoacrylate glues had popped up, with Eastman Kodak, Loctite, and Permabond accounting for around 3/4 of all “Super Glue” sales.

2) The Popsicle was Invented by an 11 Year Old

In 1905, eleven-year-old Frank Epperson from San Francisco, California invented the popular hot weather treat, the Popsicle as we know it today. However, the invention supposedly came about as a pure accident! According to the Popsicle company, one cold evening Frank left a mixture of powder flavored soda water with a stir stick in it on the porch. Because of the cold weather outside, he awoke to a frozen treat on a stick. Seventeen years later, in 1922, Epperson served his ice lollipops at a Fireman’s ball and they were a huge hit. It didn’t take long then for Epperson to realize the commercial possibilities of his accidental invention. A year later, in 1923, he introduced the frozen pop on a stick to the public at Neptune Beach, an amusement park in Alameda, California. It was a big success. He soon after applied and received a patent for a “frozen confectionery”, in 1924, which he named the “Epsicle Ice Pop”. He began producing it in different fruit flavors on birch wood sticks.

3) The Slinky was Originally Intended to Be a Tension Spring in a Battleship Horsepower Meter

In 1943, Richard James, a marine engineer in a Philadelphia shipyard, was working at his desk, developing a special meter designed to monitor the horsepower output on naval battleships.  This meter required the use of special springs in order to stabilize the instrument in rough seas.  At a certain point, James accidentally knocked a length of one of the springs he was working with off his desk.  To his amazement, the spring fell from its position on the desk, then “walked” from that point to a stack of books, and eventually on to the floor where it coiled back up. Richard rushed home and told his wife about what happened and said, “I think if I got the right property of steel and the right tension, I could make it walk”. He went on to tell her he thought he could make a child’s toy out of it. After some time, Richard made a few prototypes, which he let children in his neighborhood play with in order to gauge the response, which ended up being overwhelmingly positive.  His wife, Betty, then searched for a name for this new toy. After searching through the dictionary for hours, she finally settled on “Slinky”, meaning “sinuous and slender” and had previously been used mainly as an adjective to describe women or clothing.

With a $500 loan to pay a company to manufacture a small quantity of Slinkies, in 1945, Richard and Betty made an attempt to sell the toy in a retail outlet store in Philadelphia. The retail store agreed to put 400 Slinkies on display for the upcoming Christmas shoppers. After a few days and no sales, Richard began to fear the worst.   He decided to go down to the store and display what the toy could do.  His wife Betty agreed to meet up with him later that night.   When she arrived, she saw a line of customers purchasing every last slinky. All 400 Slinkies sold in 90 minutes. And the rest, as they say is history…

4) The Microwave Oven was Invented by a Man Who was Orphaned and Never Finished Grammar School

The man was Percy Spencer.  At the age of just 18 months old, Spencer’s father died and his mother soon left him to his aunt and uncle.  His uncle then died when Spencer was just seven years old.  Spencer subsequently left grammar school and, at the age of 12, began working from sunup to sundown at a spool mill, which he continued to do until he was 16 years old.  At this time, he heard about a nearby paper mill that was “electrifying”, which intrigued him.  Given that few in his town, a remote community in Maine, knew much of anything about electricity, he began learning what he could about it and managed to become one of three people who were hired to install electricity in the plant, despite having never received any formal training in electrical engineering nor even finishing grammar school. At the age of 18, Spencer decided to join the U.S. navy after becoming interested in wireless communications directly following learning about the wireless operators aboard the Titanic when it sank.  While with the navy, he made himself an expert on radio technology: “I just got hold of a lot of textbooks and taught myself while I was standing watch at night.”  He also subsequently taught himself: trigonometry, calculus, chemistry, physics, and metallurgy, among other subjects.

Fast-forward to 1939 where Spencer, now one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design, was working at Raytheon as the head of the power tube division.  Largely due to his reputation and expertise, Spencer managed to help Raytheon win a government contract to develop and produce combat radar equipment for M.I.T.’s Radiation Laboratory.  This was of huge importance to the Allies and became the military’s second highest priority project during WWII, behind the Manhattan Project.  It also saw Spencer’s staff rise from 15 employees to 5000 over the course of the next few years. One day, while Spencer was working on building magnetrons for radar sets,  he was standing in front of an active radar set when he noticed the candy bar he had in his pocket melted.  Spencer wasn’t the first to notice something like this with radars, but he was the first to investigate it.  He and some other colleagues then began trying to heat other food objects to see if a similar heating effect could be observed.  The first one they heated intentionally was popcorn kernels, which became the world’s first microwaved popcorn.  Spencer then decided to try to heat an egg.  He got a kettle and cut a hole in the side, then put the whole egg in the kettle and positioned the magnetron to direct the microwaves into the hole.  The result was that the egg exploding in the face of one of his co-workers, who was looking in the kettle as the egg exploded.

Spencer then created what we might call the first true microwave oven by attaching a high density electromagnetic field generator to an enclosed metal box.  The magnetron would then shoot into the metal box, so that the electromagnetic waves would have no way to escape, which would allow for more controlled and safe experimentation.  He then placed various food items in the box and monitored their temperature to observe the effect. The company Spencer was working for, Raytheon, then filed a patent on October 8, 1945 for a microwave cooking oven, eventually named the Radarange.

5) Teflon was Invented by Accident

The man who accidentally invented it was Dr. Roy Plunkett. After receiving his BA, MS, and eventually PhD in organic chemistry, Dr. Plunkett took a job with DuPont, in Jackson New Jersey. He was subsequently assigned to work on synthesizing various new forms of refrigerant, trying to find a non-toxic alternative to refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and ammonia. According to DuPont, in 1938, 27 year old Dr. Plunkett and his assistant, Jack Rebok, were experimenting with one such potential alternative refrigerant, tetrafluorethylene (TFE).  Dr. Plunkett subsequently created around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small cylinders.  On April 6, 1938, upon opening the valve on one of the supposedly full pressurized cylinders of TFE that had previously been frozen, nothing came out, even though by its weight, it seemed to still be full.  The two then decided to investigate further by cutting the cylinder open.  Once they managed to get it open, they discovered that the TFE gas inside had polymerized into a waxy white powder, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin.

Ever the scientist, Plunkett then proceeded to run tests on this new substance to see if it had any unique or useful properties.  Four of the most important properties of this substance discovered were that it was extremely slippery (one of the slipperiest substances known to man), non-corrosive, chemically stable, and that it had an extremely high melting point. These properties were deemed interesting enough that the study of the substance was transferred to DuPont’s Central Research Department and assigned to chemists that had special experience in polymer research and development, while Dr. Plunkett was then promoted and transferred to a separate division that produced tetraethyl, used to boost gasoline octane levels.

Three years later, the process and name of Teflon were patented and trademarked.  Four years after that, Teflon first began being sold, initially only used for various industrial and military applications due to the expense of producing TFE.  By the 1960s, various forms of Teflon were being used in a variety of applications, such as stain repellant in fabrics, electrical wire insulation, and the like.  It was also in the 1960s that Teflon began being used in its most publicly known application, as a coating for non-stick pans.

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