Accidental Genius: 10 Surprising Inventions
By Emma Foster and Josefina Salomon
Bulletproof fiber. Reusable glue. An insanely potent cleaning product. Athletic running shoes. The World Wide Web. Even the “little blue pill.” What do each of these everyday products have in common? Well, first off, they all exist today thanks to individual genius, but even more spectacular: They are all accidental finds.
In today’s Daily Dose, we take you through some of the most shocking, wonderful, serendipitous moments that changed the course of history and offer insight into the inspiring brains behind these products. We promise that when you’re done, you’ll never look at them the same way again.
gifts to the world
Athletic Running Shoes
In case you didn’t know, NASA deals with more than space. Much more. The technology used in everything from memory foam mattresses to portable computers to freeze-dried fruit is all the work of the agency’s stargazing scientists. But here’s one innovation that’s particularly surprising: Looking to build astronaut helmets that could better absorb shock, space engineers back in the 1970s came up with a revolutionary process to mold rubber. It involved inserting melted plastic into a mold and pumping compressed air into it, creating an air-filled bubble inside. The air absorbs vibrations while keeping the shape of the plastic. Great for space helmets and great for . . . running shoes. At least that’s what the late Frank Rudy, a NASA aerospace engineer at the time, thought. Nike loved Rudy’s idea so much it began fashioning shoes with the design. Judging by the company’s balance sheets decades later, you do too!
The World Wide Web
Ever despair at the sight of your messy desk? In the early 1990s, British physicist and computer scientist Tim Berners-Lee did and, without realizing it, came up with one of the greatest inventions in human history: the World Wide Web. Originally, Berners-Lee designed software to connect bits of information from the many files he was often working with, trying to imitate the connections our brains make. Then, he proceeded to use the same system to connect files from different computers and . . . eureka! “It would be akin to a carpenter building a little cabinet for himself and suddenly discovering he could store the entire world inside the thing,” says Arthur Molella of the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. Fast-forward three decades and Berners-Lee (who, incredibly, somehow never directly profited from his creation) says he is not done. His next mission? Fix the internet. He, and others like him, want to decentralize the web and clean it of fake news and toxicity. How? By taking power away from corporations. “There are people working in the lab trying to imagine how the Web could be different,” he told Vanity Fair, referring to his team’s work on a new platform, Solid.
The Paw-fect Inspiration
A dog inspired the creation of Velcro. No, really. Thanks to his Irish pointer, Swiss engineer George de Mestral came up with the idea in 1941. While walking in the mountains, his pooch became covered in burrs after an encounter with a particularly difficult bush. Slightly annoyed, de Mestral took the burrs to a lab and put them under a microscope. The irritating seeds held a fascinating secret. In order to hook themselves onto certain surfaces to help them disperse, they boast an intricate system of thousands of small hooks. Inspired by this natural phenomenon, he wondered if it could be replicated. It turns out it could. But not everyone was a fan of the invention at first. In fact, six fabric companies in Europe rejected de Mestral’s invention, saying it was too difficult to produce on a large scale. Eventually, he found a producer and received a patent for his invention in 1955. The now famous Velcro (a portmanteau of the words “velvet” and “crochet,” or “hook” in French) was born.
Up there with pens and staplers as one of the most popular office products of all time, these sticky notes are also the result of a serendipitous moment. In 1968, Spencer Silver, an American chemist at the consumer goods and health care company 3M, was trying to formulate a super strong adhesive to hold plane parts together when he invented the first reusable glue. But it wasn’t until many years later that someone came up with an actual use for it. While attending church, Arthur Fry, a 3M engineer, struggled to bookmark a page on his Bible, but then an idea came to him. Some reusable glue and paper and his problem was solved. The company now produces an estimated 50 billion Post-it notes a year, worth around $1 billion. And although the patent expired in 1997, no one else is authorized to make sticky notes in that specific shade of yellow. But that’s not all — scientists at 3M recently reengineered Silver’s glue to create a new, waterproof sticky note that they promise will stay put even in freezing weather.
The late Stephanie Kwolek never wanted to be a chemist. Instead, she dreamed of following in her mother’s footsteps and becoming a fashion designer. But when her mother told her she was too much of a perfectionist to work in the fashion world, she turned to the research lab instead. And thank God she did. Kwolek is the brains behind Kevlar, the ultrastrong material that makes bulletproof jackets, well, bulletproof. How does it work? Kevlar is made of very tightly woven molecules that can only be separated by a lot of energy, more than can even be generated by a bullet. But when Kwolek invented the lightweight, malleable and heat-resistant synthetic fabric in 1965, she was actually looking for a way to make car tires more fuel-efficient. Instead, she found that the super plastic became the poster child for protecting human bodies. The science pioneer also invented fabrics such as the flame-resistant thermoplastic used in firefighters’ suits and contributed to the development of spandex (thank you, madam!).
Working in a lab and forgetting to wash your hands is a no-no. That’s unless you are Constantin Fahlberg and the breach leads to one of the most revolutionary gastronomic discoveries in recent history: artificial sweeteners. The year was 1877 and the young Russian chemist had joined professor Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University to conduct experiments. One evening, when Fahlberg was having dinner at home, he realized all his food (and even his hands) tasted strangely sweet. At first, he had no idea why. Retracing his steps, Fahlberg tasted all the compounds he and Remsen had worked with in the lab that particular day and found that, when combined, the mixture of substances produced a flavor he described as “even sweeter than cane sugar.” How? Saccharin, a molecule, has a very particular shape that triggers sweet-taste receptors on our tongues, which, in turn, trick the brain into thinking it’s tasting sugar. This story, however, has a sour ending, with the two chemists falling out after Fahlberg filed a patent in 1886 naming himself as the sole brain behind saccharin.
If you’ve ever tried lighting a fire without a match, you’d definitely understand why John Walker became such a sensation upon inventing the first friction prototype in 1826. Luck had a lot to do with it. The British pharmacist had, in fact, been attempting to make a paste to be used in . . . guns. The eureka moment arrived when the wooden instrument he was using to mix the paste accidentally scraped against the floor and caught fire. The invention was a hit and Walker earned a place in history, although not as a businessman. He failed to patent his invention and copies of his matches quickly emerged, with hundreds of factories sprouting up in England alone. While the small sticks changed society, it isn’t an entirely happy story. The first matches were made with white phosphorus, a dangerous chemical that made many of the factory workers extremely sick, suffering from conditions akin to leprosy. Since then, a different mix of chemicals (including potassium chlorate, sulfur and glass powder) is used to make matches.
“She was a jewel of a wife … with just one flaw,” read one of the many cringeworthy Lysol ads produced in early 1900s America. That’s right, the ultrapowerful disinfectant today at the forefront of the domestic fight against the COVID-19 virus was marketed as a female hygiene product. Up until the 1950s when the formula was finally changed, commercials advised the product as the best way to fix marital problems. But read between the lines and another entirely different message may be deduced: Historians say that “female hygiene” was actually a covert way of saying “contraception.” Frighteningly, Lysol was a popular form of birth control in the U.S. during the early 1900s, and an extremely dangerous one too, with several recorded deaths. To be clear, this disinfectant’s only place is in the cleaning cupboard.
The popular blue pill is the result of pure chance and one very observant nurse. In the early 1990s, scientists looking to treat high blood pressure and angina began testing Sildenafil, a drug that works by increasing blood flow to targeted areas. When human trials began, one of the nurses noticed something strange. “They found a lot of the men were lying on their stomachs,” John LaMattina, head of research at Pfizer at the time, told STAT’s Signal podcast. “They were embarrassed [because] they were getting erections.” The good news was that the drug worked, just not in the places scientists were hoping. Instead, they had inadvertently found a treatment for a condition that affects one-third of adult men across the world. After going to market in 1998, Pfizer’s famous diamond-shaped product quickly rose to stardom, becoming an object of popular culture and an eye-watering moneymaker. Fun fact: Viagra’s main component is still used to treat some heart conditions affecting men and women.
Disposable Sanitary Pads
What do wounded soldiers from World War I and female periods have in common? Cellu-cotton. The product, invented by the American paper company Kimberly-Clark in 1914, was made out of wood pulp, making cellu-cotton many times more absorbent than regular cotton bandages. And much cheaper too. Legend has it that when the war ended and Kimberly-Clark company executives were looking for new clients for their products, a group of American nurses said they had been using the super absorbent cotton as sanitary pads. Believe it or not, this was a revolutionary concept at a time when menstruation was considered taboo and left women with few options. While the idea of single-use products is somewhat counterintuitive today (menstrual cups and all), in the early 1900s, they allowed women to carry on with their daily lives at any time of the month. But there was a catch: the price tag. At the equivalent of nearly $1 per pad, the convenience only applied to the rich.