Happy Accidents

I’m often intrigued as to how some things ever got invented. The history of invention is littered with happy accidents that gave rise to totally unexpected inventions that, whilst not exactly changing the world, certainly made a notable impact. Take, for example, the story of 3M and Post-It notes. Dr Silver (a wonderfully villainous name if ever I heard one) was attempting to invent a super-sticky adhesive, when he inadvertently created a low-tack version instead. The ultimate failure turned into a commercial success, once someone found a problem to which this solution could be applied (and removed, and applied). How would we ever have functioned in modern society without the sticky note? Whole organisations would come crashing down without the simple ability to brainstorm and move ideas around on a sheet of paper. So many office pranks would have fallen flat if every piece of paper had to be stuck up with sticky tape.


And then there is the Grand-daddy of Facetime, the man without whom our world would be blissfully free of mobile apps, wild ringtones, teenage text-speak and emoticon languages. I’m talking about Sir Alexander Graham Bell. He was trying to save his own hearing by creating a hearing aid. No, he wasn’t deaf – his wife and mother were. Can you imagine the deafening conversations in the Bell household:





It must have been a constant game of Chinese Whispers:

Send three and four pence. We are going to a dance

Send reinforcements. We are going to advance

So, Bell was working away to find a solution to his wife’s excessive volume when he stumbled upon the telephone. And there is no truth whatsoever that the first call ever made was to order a pizza.

How is it that so many countries can lay claim to Bell and the invention of the telephone? The guy was Scottish, so it is a Scottish invention, you would think. But then he had a summer home in Cape Breton, the wild island off the coast of Nova Scotia (itself barely clinging to the mass of North America like a troublesome skin tag on the neck of a giant). So Canada can lay claim to this invention. But then the first patent was issued in the US, so of course America has to leap on the bandwagon!

Another Scot (they are a canny bunch) gave rise to penicillin by virtue of his lack of household cleanliness. Typical man, he left a stack of dirty dishes in the sink for two weeks and came home to green mould. In doing so he gave rise to the greatest excuse ever known to Man to avoid doing the dishes. And whilst we are on the subject of the greatest ‘aids’ to Man, what about those little blue pills?


Viagra was invented for chest pain, but it had a side effect. A truly magnificent side effect. A four-hour standing ovation side effect and the birth of a whole industry of copycat drugs, a new speciality in marketing for the Golf Channel and many embarrassed conversations with younger children.

It is better to have tried and failed than to never have tried at all (unless we are talking about sky diving)

But these are all scientist accidents in the pursuit of something else. What about the culinary accidents that gave rise to some of our staples of today? How did bread ever get invented? This is a food product so complex that it is a black art to create eatable bread in your own home, with or without that most useless of products, the Bread Maker. Yet millennia ago, some ancient housewife discovered that yeast made things grow (kinda culinary Viagra). And cheese – who decided to eat mouldy cheese the first time? Some stingy French farmer who decided to keep the mouldy batch and sell it at market, rather than throw the whole lot out and start again? Some of the ugliest, lumpiest fruits and roots make for the best tasting foods.

Next scientific breakthrough!
Next scientific breakthrough!

Trial and error is a standard part of the human psyche. And as no-one will admit failure we will fudge and cover up, even if it means denying the original intention of our work. Some accidents are happy ones, others less so. It’s all a matter of time and place.

It seems to me that there are far more things that happen by accident than were ever planned. I guess this stands true not just for products, but for most of the children in the world too.

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