Did You Know: Accidental Discoveries And Inventions
June 16, 2013

Did You Know: Accidental Discoveries And Inventions

There are thousands upon thousands of inventions out there that never ‘make it.’ There are some that are complete and utter accidents. Some are just ridiculous. But some of the best things around were actually invented for one specific purpose; only to find out they worked better as something else, or even had multiple uses.

Play-Doh; we all know it as the fun modeling compound children use to make just about anything they can think of. It comes in a variety of colors these days, even neon colors. But did you know that Play-Doh was originally invented by Cleo McVicker to clean wallpaper in the 1930’s? Yup, wallpaper. During that time, most homes were heated by coal, which was much cheaper than wood. The drawback was that it left soot on everything, including wallpaper, which then had to be cleaned. Since this is before vinyl wallpaper, you can imagine how popular a good cleaner would be. But after WWII, sales began to fall as oil and gas replaced coal for heating. Fast forward to 1954 when McVicker’s sister-in-law (who ran a daycare) read an article saying you could use wallpaper cleaner to make decorations. The kids loved it. They took out the detergent, and added coloring and an almond scent. Play-Doh as we know it today was born.

Many people think Super Glue was originally developed as a battlefield glue to hold wounds together during WWII. While an interesting urban legend, it’s not true. It was, however, created quite by accident. “In WWII, scientists at Kodak were experimenting with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates to make clear plastics to be used for precision gunsights. Unfortunately, the chemicals kept sticking together, making them impossible to work with. The scientists had to abandon the project.” After being left to gather dust, it was ‘rediscovered’ 1951 when it’s real potential was finally recognized. On a side note, “Super Glue actually was used in the Vietnam War to help close up wounds on soldiers while they were being transported to hospitals to then receive stitches. Today, a form of cyanoacrylate is often used in place of or in conjunction with traditional sutures.” Pretty useful stuff!

And then there is Teflon. At some time or other, everyone has owned cookware coated with Teflon, to which nothing sticks. It can also be found in the stain resistant clothes we wear, as well as having numerous uses in several different industries. According to DuPont, the company behind Teflon, Dr. Roy Plunkett was “trying to find a non-toxic alternative to refrigerants like sulfur dioxide and ammonia.” New refrigerants were needed because earlier ones, such as ammonia and sulfur dioxide, poisoned people. “Dr. Plunkett subsequently created around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small cylinders. On April 6, 1938, upon opening the valve on one of the supposedly full pressurized cylinders of TFE that had previously been frozen, nothing came out, even though by its weight, it seemed to still be full. The two then decided to investigate further by cutting the cylinder open. Once they managed to get it open, they discovered that the TFE gas inside had polymerized into a waxy white powder, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin.” Introduced by DuPont in 1946, it is still sold today, with uses ranging from bearings and gears (thanks to low friction) to nonstick surfaces (it doesn’t stick to anything!) for cooking. But the question remains: how do they get it to stick to the pan?

Everyone knows the many, many uses of WD-40, but no one knows exactly what it is made of. According to the company, “In 1953, a fledgling company called Rocket Chemical Company and its staff of three set out to create a line of rust-prevention solvents and degreasers for use in the aerospace industry, in a small lab in San Diego, California. It took them 40 attempts to get the water displacing formula worked out. But they must have been really good, because the original secret formula for WD-40®—which stands for Water Displacement perfected on the 40th try—is still in use today.” But is has so many other used than what it was originally intended for. Most people have used it to unstick the hinges on doors, or to remove chewing gum from hair. For instance, did you know that you could use it to remove labels or keep sewing needles from rusting? How about the fact that it will keep snow from sticking to a shovel? It can also polish silver jewelry, remove scuffmarks from the floor and even help you clean your shower? In fact, the company lists over 2000 uses for this incredible stuff!

It is amazing to me how things are made. Whether by accidental discovery, or simply finding that a product has more than one use, science has allowed us to continually find new and inventive ways of doing things. Without science to lead the way, just think of all the things we would be missing out on!

Image Credit: Hilch / Shutterstock

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