Unforseen Fortunes

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Status: Finished  |  Genre: Non-Fiction  |  House: Booksie Classic

Unforeseen Fortunes

Accidental inventions that shocked their creators


Thousands of hours of tedious work have gone into creating the plethora of gadgets and gismos that populate our modern-day society.  The Wright Brothers slaved away for years adjusting wing warp and improving propeller efficiency before surged skyward for a bumpy 12-second flight.  And Thomas Edison tested thousands of possible light bulb filaments, trying everything from paper to palmetto before his little piece of carbonized thread emitted a steady orange glow.  Yes, notable inventions require inspiration, perspiration, and perseverance.  Well, at least most of them do.  Some, however, popped up whenthey were least expected with little or no effort. 

Eleven-year-old Frank Epperson, for instance, was merely interested in whipping up a refreshing drink back in 1905.  After he stirred a packet of fruit-flavored drink powder into a glass of water using a wooden stick, he took a couple satisfied sips.  Soon, though, the evening chill drove him inside and he left the glass behind.  The next morning the young California lad was surprised to observe the contents of the glass frozen solid with the stirring stick poking out the top. 

Determined not to waste any of his tasty treat, he ran a little warm water on the glass, grasped the stick and popped out the contents.  As he happily licked the frozen concoction, the wheels in his entrepreneurial little mind began to turn.  Soon, he was selling the frozen bars to his neighbors. Feeling his creations needed a name; he combined his last name, Epperson, with icicle and christened them "Epsicles".  Although they earned him spending money during his teens, Frank didn't realize their actual potential for another 17 years.  He made a batch and successfully sold them at a local fireman's ball.  The next year, 1923, he peddled them for nickel each at Alameda, California's Neptune Beach amusement park.Once again, they were a huge success.  The following year he applied for a patent and began producing them in several fruit flavors.  His children would later urge him to change the name.  Since they had always referred to their father's creation as "Pop's 'sicles," they suggested Popsicles. 

Another inventor-to-be happened on a money-making miracle when he was actually trying to insult a persnickety customer.  George Crum was already known as a great chef at Saratoga, New York's upscale resort, Moon's Lake House.  In fact, he was considered by the wealthy diners to be able to "take anything edible and transform it into a dish fit for a king."  Those customers often included such elites as members of the Hilton and the Vanderbilt families.  According to several reports, Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt was likely the customer who incurred Crum's creative wrath. 

Back in 1853, he sent back an order of French fries that he declared to be "too fat and limp."  Crum, known to be a bit temperamental, clenched his teeth, refried them, and sent them out again.  To his chagrin the waiter brought them back saying the customer once again rejected them as not being crispy enough.  With an "I'll show you crisp!" attitude, Crum grabbed a potato, cut it into ridiculously thin slices, tossed them into hot grease and fried them until they couldn't be penetrated with a fork.  To top off his mischievous handiwork, he over-salted them until they were obviously inedible.Crum was flabbergasted when his previously picky customer ordered a second batch.  Word soon spread about the tasty "Saratoga Chips" at the resort and Crum eventually opened his own restaurant.  His venture specialized in the newfangled snack which would later become known around the world as the potato chip.

Not that Popsicles and potato chips aren't important, but another famous innovative accident saved millions of lives.  Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming had been seeking a wonder drug to cure infections ever since he served as a captain in the British Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I.  He watched helplessly as several of his fellow soldiers survived their wounds only to succumb to rampant infections.  Fourteen years later, while researching the nasty little bug staphylococcus, which caused the deadly "staph" infections that had taken many of the soldiers' lives, his wonder drug found him

History is a little fuzzy as to whether he purposefully set out a few Petri dishes filled with the bacteria to grow, or was a tad messy and left several dirty Petri dishes in the sink.  Either way, when he returned after a two-week vacation, the little dishes had become contaminated with mold that blew in through an open window.  He tossed several dishes into a bucket of disinfectant, but as he started to add another one, he noticed something peculiar about it.  It was covered with the Staph germs everywhere except near a glob of the mold.  After researching further, Fleming decided there must be something excreted by the mold which was fatal to the Staph bacteria.  He identified the mold as Penicillium rubens, and named the secretion it emitted, Penicillin.  After years of research by Fleming and other scientists in order to produce it in quantity, the wonder drug he was seeking began its lifesaving career.

Not as vital as Penicillin, but very important to the creativity of about a zillion kids, a delayed discovery began in the early 1930s, but didn't actually occur until 1957.  Cincinnati's Noah McVicker and his nephew, Joseph, both worked at their family's soap company, Kutol Products.  The Kroger Grocery executives asked them to come up with something to remove the residue of coal-burning stoves from wallpaper.  Putting their heads together, they created a cleaning putty that did the trick.  Sales of the new concoction were great until a few years later when coal stoves were not as prevalent and wallpaper manufacturers produced a washable vinyl paper.  The Kutol Company then turned its attention to their liquid soap line.

In the late 1950s, though, Joseph received a call from his sister-in-law, Kay Zufall.  She was a nursery school teacher who had just read an article about young school kids making art projects with the coal-cleaning putty.  She encouraged Joseph to market the substance as toy putty for children.  In 1956, the McVickers launched the Rainbow Crafts Company to make and sell the new product.  According to reports, Kay was the one who suggested the name of Play-Doh. That year they sold it in the toy department of Washington D.C.'s Woodward & Lothrop department store.  The rather nasty-looking off-white substance sold surprisingly well.  The next year, in colorful containers of red, yellow, and blue putty, it took off into playtime history.

The list is lengthy, of inventions created while someone was actually working on making something else.  Coca Cola's founder, John Pemberton, was trying to mix up a tonic for headaches and hangovers.  Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, only came up with the microwave oven when a peanut cluster bar melted in his pocket as he was working around a new vacuum tube used in radar systems.  The discovery of the life-saving pacemaker was the result of an electrical engineer mistaking the color-coding of resisters and installing an overly powerful one into the circuit he was working on.  Constantine Fahlberg, a chemist at Johns Hopkins University simply forgot to wash his hands before dinner after working in the laboratory.  Chomping down on a biscuit, he noticed how sweet it tasted.  The birth of Saccharin, the first artificial sweetener, resulted from Fahlberg's return to the beakers in his lab where he tasted each one until he found the sweet one.  Once he did, he took 10 grams of it, swallowed it and waited for 24-hours to see if anything happened.  Fortunately, nothing did.  So many important inventions have come about by accident; it seems the best way to create something is to try to make something else.

Submitted: February 05, 2021

© Copyright 2021 Dennis L. Goodwin. All rights reserved.

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Add Your Comments:


LE. Berry

Informative piece Dennis.

Fri, February 5th, 2021 9:55pm


Glad you enjoyed it.


Fri, February 5th, 2021 7:40pm

Serge Wlodarski

Hmmm. I need to accidentally invent something made from snow.

Sat, February 6th, 2021 11:51am


Good luck. If you do, I get a cut of the profits for prompting you to do it.

Sat, February 6th, 2021 6:21am

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