The phrase It was an accident is usually accompanied by scolding words and a sputtering apology. But as American wit Mark Twain wrote, “Name the greatest of all inventors: accident.” Mistakes often yield wonderful results—particularly in the science lab. Many useful or playful inventions came from experiments gone awry. Others were intended for very different purposes from those they came to serve. Penicillin, Coca-Cola, plastic, Play-Doh and Slinky all had accidental births.
The inventor of Coca-Cola was a morphine addict. Injured fighting in the U.S. Civil War, Confederate John Pemberton had begun taking the drug for relief but soon was hooked. Seeking an alternative to opiates, Pemberton devised something he called French Wine Coca: a mixture of alcohol, cocaine and a stimulant extracted from kola nuts. This powerful concoction was first advertised in 1884, and sales were high. But before long a fiery temperance movement threatened its profitability. Pemberton needed a nonalcoholic version, and in 1886 he created Coca-Cola. It didn’t cure his addiction (and it still included cocaine), but it did become the most popular soda in the world.
War also motivated Scottish bacteriologist Alexander Fleming. Having served in World War I, Fleming knew that sickness is as deadly as the enemy, so he began trying to improve antiseptics. First he discovered the medical benefits of chicken eggs, which contain the antibacterial agent lysozyme. But the real game changer was yet to come. Fleming was a notorious slob, and after leaving dirty petri dishes in the lab sink, he noticed a peculiar mold had formed on them—one that seemed to destroy the staph bacteria in the dishes. He had “discovered” penicillin.
On the list of high-level secrets, the Coca-Cola formula ranks with the Roswell UFO crash site. The recipe, known only to a select few, resides in a steel vault in the World of Coca-Cola exhibition in Atlanta, where the company is headquartered. The hush around Coke dates to its creation in the 1880s, when its inventor, pharmacist John Pemberton, used to hole up in his lab, admitting only his most trusted acquaintances. Despite its mystery ingredients, generations of budding innovators have discovered new uses for the popular bubbly. Many have observed Coke’s effectiveness in removing bloodstains and rust—not to mention cleaning the toilet bowl.
Following the reverse trajectory of Coke, Play-Doh modeling compound actually started out as a stain remover, but its recipe too is closely guarded, by current owner Hasbro. Soap company Kutol Products created the putty in 1933 to absorb coal residue from wallpaper. But oil soon began to replace coal as a household heating fuel, and new vinyl wall coverings could easily be cleaned with water. Happily, Kutol’s owners learned that nursery schools sometimes used their product for arts-and-crafts activities. In 1956, seeking to keep it relevant, they evolved the claylike compound into a toy: Play-Doh.
In the 1961 film The Absent-Minded Professor, a bumbling chemist accidentally invents a new substance he calls Flubber, for “flying rubber.” Soon the inventor becomes embroiled in Machiavellian machinations, as Flubber is used to fly cars and rig basketball games. To capitalize on the film’s popularity, the Walt Disney Company and toymaker Hasbro released their own, more mundane interpretation of Flubber in 1962. The rubbery green putty was quickly recalled—and lawsuits piled up—after children playing with it broke out in nasty hives.
Flubber has real-life counterparts in two of the world’s iconic toys, also created by accident: Slinky and Play-Doh. In the mid-1940s Richard James, an American shipbuilding engineer, clumsily knocked over a torsion spring, noted the way it seemed to “walk” and decided to make a toy version. Thumbing through a dictionary, James’s wife, Betty, chose the word slinky to represent the device’s undulating movements. Slinky was inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2000—close on the heels of Play-Doh, originally a humble household cleaner. To the relief of megacorporation Hasbro, which bought the formula in 1991, the nontoxic Play-Doh has fared much better than its earlier fellow blob Flubber.
If you were to uncoil all the Slinkys ever sold, they would circle the earth 150 times. More than 300 million of the lumbering spring toys have slunk off the shelves. But as with many mass-market products, controversies have arisen. For instance, Slinky’s inventor, Richard James, abandoned his family and his company, James Industries, in 1960 to join a Christian religious sect in Bolivia. But that was nothing compared to the scandal surrounding the rainbow-colored Plastic Slinky developed in the 1970s. Many saw this gaudy incarnation as an affront to their childhood memories; the plastic lacks the heft of the original steel and fails to sound the classic Slinky twang on its way down the stairs. The Plastic Slinky, however, is a safer alternative to the original thin metal spiral, which has caused frequent lacerations, rare strangulations and even the occasional electrocution (don’t insert yours into a socket).
Believe it or not, the Plastic Slinky was also an accidental discovery. Plastics manufacturer Donald Reum wanted to create a coiled plastic hose for improved watering of houseplants. His hose never succeeded, but he realized his new product was curiously similar to Slinky.
Shellac is made from the excretions of a beetle found clinging to Southeast Asian trees—hardly a selling point. Used as an insulator for wood and wiring, however, the resinous insect droppings became a pivotal—and expensive—component of late-19th-century products. Belgian-born chemist Leo Baekeland decided to create a cheaper, synthetic version. What he produced instead, in 1907, was one of the first plastics: Bakelite, which he enthusiastically labeled the “material of a thousand uses.” Since then, plastic’s versatility has only expanded (and original Bakelite radios and costume jewelry have become magnets for collectors). Of course, its very prevalence is now a problem. Plastic sticks around for thousands of years, kills wildlife, carries bacteria and leaches harmful toxins into the air and ground. Piles of plastic trash pollute the land, and huge flotillas of it desecrate the oceans.
No truly viable replacements for plastic have been invented, but the children’s toy Play-Doh shares some of its properties. Like plastic, it is a moldable elastic compound that lasts an unnaturally long time, but Play-Doh has the distinct advantage of being biodegradable. Of course, aside from making cute figurines, Play-Doh is of little practical use—also, it’s sold in plastic containers.
Bacteria came under attack in new ways in the 20th century. Alexander Fleming discovered the healing properties of the mold penicillin in 1928, but he failed to isolate the active component into an effective treatment. In 1938 a team of Oxford University pathologists led by Howard Florey and Ernst Chain began to experiment extensively with the antibacterial agent. They injected penicillin into live mice and found that it cured infections. They moved on to human subjects and got the same results. During World War II the team received government funding to produce large quantities of penicillin to treat wounded soldiers. Fleming, Florey and Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945.
Another 20th-century invention unexpectedly proved an enemy of bacteria: Play-Doh. Usually toys are excellent means of transportation for germs; kids often do nasty things with them, allowing bacteria to plot an express trip straight to a child’s ill-equipped immune system. But Play-Doh is no such vehicle. According to a 1965 patent, the erstwhile household cleaner contains borax, a mineral compound that inhibits bacterial growth. Happy accidents both, Play-Doh is now in every toy store, and penicillin in every pharmacy—with bacteria footing the bill.