16 Things That Were Invented by Accident

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We all make mistakes every day: Dropped things, wrong turns, lost items, misspelled words. Most of those mistakes are quickly forgotten, and we move on.

But sometimes, mistakes turn out to be happy accidents. Throughout history, decisions and actions that seemed like errors at the time have occasionally turned into wonderful discoveries. Or, in some cases, products that seemed to have outlived their welcome found a new life as something else entirely.

Think of these scenarios the next time you goof up. Perhaps your slip-up is actually a blessing in disguise.

1. Microwave oven

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A melted candy bar helped invent microwave cooking. Percy Spencer worked as an engineer at Raytheon in the middle part of the 20th century.

One day, the microwaves from an active radar set began to melt the candy bar in his pocket. Next, he tried popcorn kernels, which began to pop. This eventually led to Raytheon’s invention of the first microwave oven in 1947.

For the simplest way to clean your own, check out “How to Clean a Filthy Microwave in 30 Seconds.”

2. Yogurt

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It’s believed that yogurt was popularized because many early humans could not tolerate dairy products. Someone discovered that once dairy products had fermented, it turned into a product that was suddenly digestible.

Professor Mark Thomas of University College London told NPR that, “if you milked a cow in the morning … in the Near East by lunchtime it would have started to ferment into yogurt.” The transformation was probably not intentional, but it was a lovely accident for those of us who can’t imagine a day without yogurt.

Did you know you can make your own yogurt? It’s a lot cheaper than store-bought, as we detail in “10 Food Staples That Are Cheap and Easy to Make at Home.”

3. Ice cream cones

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There are numerous legends about the development of the ice cream cone, but The New York Times related that in America, the cone originated at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.

Ernest Hamwi, a Syrian concessions vendor, supposedly curled a waffle cookie to hold the frozen treat so fairgoers could wander around and eat. Cool beans!

Now all you need is ice cream. We have a recipe in “How I Make Homemade Ice Cream That’s Better Than Store-Bought.”

4. Popsicles

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Frank Epperson was just 11 years old in 1905 when he forgot his cup of soda, with a stirring stick still inside, out on his porch.

In the morning, he found the drink frozen solid, but with the handy stick in it. Our favorite summer icy sweet was on its way to being created. Epperson called them Epsicles, but the other kids called them “Pop’s ‘sicles,” and now we know them as Popsicles. Cool!

5. Penicillin

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“One sometimes finds what one is not looking for,” Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming is quoted as saying. He should know: In 1928, he accidentally contaminated a Staphylococcus culture plate, and discovered it produced a substance that killed a number of disease-causing bacteria.

For a while, he called it “mold juice,” and we’re all glad the name was later changed to penicillin.

By some estimates, the antibiotic has saved more than 200 million lives.

6. Potato chips

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There are plenty of legends around the birth of the potato chip — and, really, there’s no telling who first sliced potatoes thin and fried them. George Crum, a New York cook in the 1800s, often gets credit for popularizing them.

But snopes.com reports that Crum’s sister Katie may have actually been the inventor, saying that she accidentally dropped a thin slice of potato into hot oil while making crullers, and the rest is crunchy history.

7. Beer

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Beer has a long and storied history. Although we don’t know precisely the who and how of its origin, international beer expert Horst Dornbusch thinks it was by accident.

As reported by Smithsonian magazine, he theorizes that bakers making bread outdoors accidentally left their dough outside, and later discovered what the magazine describes as a “soupy, fermenting liquid.” They tried it, got a little tipsy, and now we can only say, “thank brew very much.”

8. Artificial sweetener

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Russian-born chemist Constantin Fahlberg gets credit for discovering saccharin, the first commercially available artificial sweetener, back in 1879.

According to the Encyclopedia Britannica, Fahlberg was investigating the oxidation of a chemical when he noticed that when he would go home to eat, everything he ate tasted sweet. It was the chemical itself that was creating the sweetness, and he later gave it the name “saccharin.”

9. X-rays

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In 1895, German physicist William Roentgen began experimenting with a cathode tube “featuring a thin aluminum window that allowed some of the electromagnetic rays to escape,” according to PBS.

He realized mysterious invisible rays were passing from the tube through the cardboard to make the screen glow. He called them X-rays, since he didn’t know the nature of the electromagnetic beams.

In a chilling postscript, the first-ever X-ray of a human body part was taken by Roentgen of his wife’s hand, wearing her wedding ring. When she saw her skeletal hand in the image, she reportedly exclaimed, “I have seen my death.”

10. Post-it Notes

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Spencer Silver, a scientist for 3M, accidentally created an adhesive that stuck temporarily, but could be easily peeled off. Another 3M scientist, Art Fry, was frustrated because his paper bookmarks kept falling out of his church hymnal.

When the two came together, they invented the Post-it Note, a piece of paper with adhesive that could be stuck lightly to surfaces, yet easily removed. The notes now come in many colors, but their original canary yellow hue was another accident: That’s the color of paper the next-door lab happened to have on hand.

11. Champagne

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It’s believed that the winemakers who invented Champagne were simply trying to make white wine, but a cold spell in France in the 1400s halted its fermentation.

When the weather warmed up, the fermentation progressed, but now the wine had Champagne’s famous bubbles. Cheers to this happy accident!

12. Icees

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Omar Knedlik owned a Dairy Queen franchise in Kansas in the 1950s, but he didn’t have a soda fountain at his store to deliver cold drinks. So, he reportedly took home bottles of soda pop, froze them, then brought them back.

Customers enjoyed the slushy drinks so much that he began to experiment with an old ice-cream machine to try and make the drink at the same consistency all the time. Shortly thereafter, he invented the Icee.

13. Corn flakes

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Back in 1898, brothers W.K. and John Harvey Kellogg were actually trying to make granola, but weren’t satisfied with the result, according to NPR. W.K. Kellogg then kept experimenting until he toasted flakes of corn.

Forget granola: Kellogg’s Corn Flakes turned out to be a hit. Pass the milk!

14. Tofu

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Another legend-that-can’t-be-proved here, but the BBC is pretty credible, so we’re going with it. Tofu may have been an accidental invention, created 2,000 years ago “by a Chinese cook who accidentally curdled soy milk when he added nigari seaweed.”

Today, vegetarians and other healthy eaters are thankful.

15. Play-Doh

Little girl playing with play dough
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That favorite childhood toy, Play-Doh, originally was meant to be something rather dull and for adults’ use: wallpaper cleaner. But then, a quirk of fate changed toy history, according to the National Toy Hall of Fame:

“Joe McVicker learned from a teacher that kids usually found modeling clay too hard to manipulate. Discovering that the squishy cleaning product he manufactured could substitute, McVicker shipped some to the school. After teachers and kids raved, he offered to supply the product to all Cincinnati schools.”

Suddenly, that wallpaper cleaning putty had a new life.

16. Silly Putty

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Who doesn’t love Silly Putty, the goofy, stretchy compound that many adults remember using to lift images off the colored comics pages in the Sunday newspaper? (It’s harder to do this today — many papers use soy ink, which doesn’t lift as well.)

According to The Strong National Museum of Play, James Wright, a chemist at General Electric, was looking for a rubber substitute during World War II when he stumbled upon the putty. Although industrialists didn’t find a wartime use for it, toy marketer Peter Hodgson later started selling it as a novelty, and the useless putty turned into good fun — and good profit, most likely.

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