Some say necessity is the mother of invention. This is undoubtedly true, but there’s another crucial pipeline towards innovation that is often overlooked: sheer, accidental happenstance. Many of our great inventions and gadgetry have come about through unexpected means. Below we take a look at some of the most surprising accidental inventions we see around us today.
One of the loftiest goals dreamed after by inventors down through the ages has been the pursuit of perpetual motion. If one could only devise a means of generating infinite energy, mankind’s march of progress would be limitless. From Archimedes to Da Vinci, all the great minds have explored the question of whether perpetual motion is indeed possible.
Parisian inventor Blaise Pascal, working in the 1600s, was no different. His novel idea for cracking this riddle was to develop a spinning wheel with zero friction. If such a wheel could be set spinning, and never stop, infinite energy would be a reality.
Unfortunately for Pascal, as for all others who have tried and failed, physics is unforgiving of those who try to break the laws of nature. Pascal’s spinning wheel was incredibly smooth, but it would eventually stop. Yet the invention found a second life before long as the heart of the casino game Roulette, a game now played the world over in gaming establishments. Roulette has even experienced renewed interest among digital natives, thanks to online versions of its classic style, meaning Pascal’s accidental gaming revolution is set to continue for the foreseeable future.
Bubble wrap; once you pop you just can’t stop. This peculiar material is everywhere in our modern lives. Over 400 million dollars worth of the bubble-bespeckled plastic wrap is sold to the public and private sector each year. Its utility as a sure-fire way of safeguarding valuable and fragile objects when they’re in transit is unquestionable. Most would readily, and reasonably, assume that this is the task bubble wrap was born to do. But this is not the case, in fact bubble wrap has a very unlikely origin.
It was 1957, and inventor and engineer duo Marc Chavannes and Al Fielding were sealing two shower curtains together using a heat gun in order to trap bubbles in between the sheets. But why? Well, because it looked nice, apparently. The pair hit upon the idea that people would actively want to pay for this material to use as a special textured wallpaper for their home décor. Sadly that was not to be, and bubble wrap quickly found a more fitting vocation as the packing material we rely upon today.
How exactly does one invent a slinky? This one was more a matter of observation than innovation. Naval engineer Richard James was experimenting with ways to safeguard sensitive equipment aboard naval vessels during high seas and combat engagements. He struck upon the idea of using springs in order to dampen vibrations, in much the same way that a car’s suspension operates.
While working away at his project, James dropped one of the oversized springs he was using on the floor, and watched, to his amazement, as it walked away down some steps. Thus the slinky was born, a world wide toy phenomenon that came about simply through an act of butter-fingers.
Microwaves have completely changed the way many people think about cooking. The convenience they offer is unrivaled, and when they first hit the shelves in 1955 they signaled the start of the ready meal/TV dinner revolution. Their accidental inventor was one Percy Spencer, a Navy electronics whizz who was experimenting with radar array technology in the 1940s. All of a sudden, he heard, and felt, a bizarre sizzling sensation emanating from his trousers, something that is certain to startle even the most battle hardened navy-man. What he found was that a chocolate bar he’d had in his pocket had melted mysteriously.
It didn’t take him long to deduce that it was due to the microwave radiation being emitted by the radar magnetron he was tinkering with. He quickly saw the utility for the kitchen and set about developing the world’s first microwave ovens.