Inventions Created By MistakePresentation Transcript
Innovation By Accident: Where Good Ideas Come From The Natural History of Innovation Donna D’Alema EDTC 265 May, 2011
“ The trouble with error is that we have a natural tendency to dismiss it.
When we are wrong, we have to challenge our assumptions, adopt new strategies.
Being wrong on its own doesn’t unlock new doors in the adjacent possible, but it does force us to look for them”.
~~~ Steven Johnson:
Where Good Ideas
We tend to hold inventors in high esteem, but often their discoveries are the result of an accident or twist of fate.
Some of man’s greatest discoveries have been made entirely by accident.
“ Necessity is the mother of invention“, but
it could also be said that while good inventions are often the product of necessity, great inventions
Here are some of those discoveries.
Legend has it that a Chinese chef accidentally mixed together some common kitchen items: potassium nitrate (a salt substitute), sulfur (a flammable solid) and charcoal (from charred wood) and noticed they ignited.
When compressed in a bamboo tube and lit, it blew up.
Chemist Constantin Fahlberg invented saccharin by accident.
In 1879, Fahlberg was testing coal tar at Johns Hopkins University.
One night he didn’t wash his hands before dinner and he noticed the substance coating them tasted sweet.
Saccharin is 300 to 500 times sweeter than real sugar.
In May of 1886, a prohibition law prompted John Pemberton, an Atlanta-based pharmacist, to rewrite the formula for his popular nerve tonic, stimulant and headache remedy.
He added sugar instead of wine as the sweetener, and the outcome became the syrup base for Coke, which was later mixed with carbonated water.
Pemberton's bookkeeper suggested the name Coca-Cola because he thought the two C’s would look good together, and scripted its very first logo in his unique handwriting.
Patsy Sherman, a chemist for 3M, was assigned to work on a project to develop a rubber material that would not deteriorate from exposure to jet aircraft fuels.
She accidentally dropped the mixture she was experimenting with on her shoe.
Eventually, when the rest of her shoe became dirty and stained, one spot remained bright and clean.
She retraced her steps and identified the stain resistant compound, known today as Scotchguard.
The Ice Cream Soda
In October 1874, Robert
Green was selling soda fountain drinks outside the Franklin Institute in Philadelphia. One of his most popular drinks was a mixture of sweet cream, syrup, and carbonated water.
One day Green ran out of the sweet cream for his drinks. He had no way of getting more, so he decided to use vanilla ice cream instead.
His new concoction was a huge success and became so popular that religious leaders declared it sinful.
By the 1890's some cities and towns passed laws prohibiting the sale of sodas on Sun day . For this reason the ice cream sundae was invented.
In 1905, 11-year old Frank Epperson tried making soda pop, by mixing soda water powder and water.
He accidentally left the soda out on his porch. Overnight, the temperatures dropped so low that the next day, young Epperson found his soda pop had frozen with the stirring stick still in it!
It wasn't until 18 years later, in 1923, that Epperson remembered his invention, applied for a patent and started selling his ice pops in assorted fruit flavors.
In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming was searching for a "wonder drug" that could cure diseases.
After several attempts, Fleming abandoned his experiments.
Eventually, he noticed an old contaminated Petri dish he had discarded contained a mold that was dissolving all the bacteria around it.
When he grew the mold by itself, he learned that it contained a powerful antibiotic, penicillin.
Charles Goodyear spent a decade finding ways to make rubber easier to work with while being resistant to heat and cold.
One day he spilled a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat charred the mixture, but didn't ruin it.
When Goodyear picked up the accident, he noticed that the mixture had hardened but was still quite usable.
Today, Goodyear’s vulcanized rubber is used in everything from tires, to shoes, to hockey pucks.
In 1982 a new method of lifting fingerprints was discovered by accident.
A glass aquarium tank in a Japanese crime lab had cracked. The detectives in the lab emptied the tank and tried to repair the crack with Super Glue. When they returned to the lab the next day, they were surprised to find white fingerprints all over the glass aquarium.
After doing some research, they found that a chemical in Super Glue called cyanoacrylate turned into a liquid and stuck to the body oils along the ridges of the fingerprints left on the surface. As it dried, a "plastic mold" formed over the ridges of the fingerprint, making the pattern visible.
Will people keep inventing things forever?
The right person to answer that question was Charles H. Duell......an ex-commissioner of the U.S. Patent Office. In 1899 he wanted to close down the patent office. His famous saying,
“ Everything that can be invented, has been invented”. That must have been an accident.
~~~~ Partha Dasgupta
What all this means, in practical terms, is that the best way to encourage (or to have) new ideas isn't to......... retreat to a mountain cabin in order to "be creative", or to blabber ….. about "blue-sky", "out-of-the-box" thinking. Rather, it's to expand the range of your possible next moves – the perimeter of your potential – by exposing yourself to as much serendipity, as much argument and conversation, as many rival and related ideas as possible; to borrow, to repurpose, to recombine. ...........Good ideas happen in networks; …..... you could even say that "good ideas are networks". Or as Johnson also puts it, "Chance favors the connected mind." ~~~ Oliver Burkeman
Burkeman, O. (2010). Steven Johnson: 'Eureka moments are very, very rare.‘ Retrieved from: http://www.guardian.co.uk/science/2010/oct/19/steven-johnson-good-ideas .
Dasgupta, P. (2001). Innovation through accident. Retrieved from: