To err is human. For some, to err is to be a lucky human. Here are some of the most fortuitous mistakes that people have ever made.
Richard James, a naval engineer during world war II, was experimenting with tension springs when he accidentally knocked one of his prototypes over. Instead of crashing to the ground, the spring kept bouncing across the room. Realising its potential, James went on to invent the slinky (meaning “sleek and graceful”) and he and his wife sold more than 100 million Slinky units in the first 2 years of production. That is more than 100,000 units per day!
The next time you make a mistake, remember the moral of a slinky: it doesn’t matter if you get knocked down, as long as you rise every time you fall.
In 1942, Kodak engineer Dr. Harry Coover found that cyanoacrylate, a substance he created, could not fulfil its original purpose of making a new precision gun sight. It stuck to everything it touched. Dr Coover considered the experiment a failure and forgot about it. Six years later, he once again came across the useless substance. However, this time what changed was that Dr Coover came up with a use for it – bonding two surfaces together. And for those of us who have ever held a shoe in one hand and the sole in the other, we all know how handy superglue can be. Definitely far from useless.
Speaking of sticky situations, there is another sticky invention which was not meant to be, but the world is nevertheless better off because of it.
3. Post-it note
In 1968, meaning to create a strong adhesive, Dr. Spencer Silver instead ended up with a very weak glue on his hand. He tossed it aside for a few years until a fellow scientist started using the glue to paste little pieces of paper to his hymnal book. That was when the post-it note was born.
The post-it note has since then gone from its humble origin of appearing in a hymnal book to appearing in the offices of CEOs around the world (the ones who are too poor to hire a secretary).
While studying staphylococcus, a type of bacteria that cause boils and sore throats, Sir Alexander Fleming decided that he needed more work life balance. And so he left on a two-week holiday—without cleaning up his work area. When he came back, he found that his petri dish of staphylococcus culture had been contaminated by a mold. Yet on closer inspection, he found that no bacteria grew around the mold, as a result of a bacteria-inhibiting substance that the mold released.
It was this sloppy mistake of his that led to the discovery of penicillin which started the age of antibiotics. If one absent-minded scientist can do so much good, then imagine how much good a whole nation of absent minded citizens can do? Here is a shout-out to MOE—it’s time to stop penalising our rounding errors, parallax errors and grammatical errors, and start recognising them as a prerequisite for brilliance… Just kidding!
5. Synthetic dye
In 1856, 18-year-old William Perkins was attempting to create the anti-malaria drug quinine, to no avail. But over the course of his experimenting with coal tar and tree bark, he extracted a brilliant purple colour which dyed textile more easily and lasted longer than the natural alternatives available during his time. That was the world’s first synthetic dye. Perkins named this new colour mauve, after a purple mallow flower, and soon everyone – from French empress Eugenie to Queen Victoria—became a dye-hard fan of his synthetic dye.
The 5 accidental discoveries above have one thing in common – the inventor saw some good in the mistakes and made the most of it. That is what differentiates a normal failure from a serendipitous discovery. As the adage goes, every cloud has a silver lining – it’s just whether you have the eye to spot it.