My Favorite Mistakes

And where would Cinderella be had she not dropped her glass slipper? Cleaning the fireplace, that’s where. (By the way, did you know that the original Cinderella story had her wearing a fur shoe? A French writer made a mistake when he wrote the story down in 1697, confusing two homonyms vair, an Old French word for fur, and verre, which is French for glass. But it was a good mistake, making for much more romantic story, and much better fashion.)

Here are some of my favorite mistakes.

Coca Cola was the result of another delicious accident. In 1886 a pharmacist named John Pemberton cooked up a medicinal syrup in a large brass kettle slung over an open fire, stirring it with an oar. When he was done, he figured he had created a fine tonic for people who were tired, nervous, or plagued with sore teeth.

He and his assistant mixed it with ice water, sipped it, and proclaimed it tasty. They wanted some more, and the assistant accidentally used carbonated water to mix the second batch. Voila! Instead of medicine, these men had created a fizzy beverage one that is now consumed around the world.

Today people guzzle 1 billion drinks a day from the Coca Cola company (they make more than Coke). Even more encouraging for us everyday screw ups: This new beverage wasn’t an instant success. In the first year, Pemberton spent $73.96 promoting his new product but managed to sell only $50 worth.

Yellow sticky notes, officially known as Post it Notes, got their start in 1968 when a 3M researcher tried to improve adhesive tape. What he got was a semisticky adhesive not exactly what you want out of tape. Even so, he knew he had something cool he just didn’t know what to do with it.

Four years later, another 3M scientist was getting frustrated. This scientist was a member of his church choir, and he kept dropping the bookmarks stuck in his hymnal. What he needed was something that would stick without being too sticky something just like that weak glue his colleague had accidentally created. In 1980 the Post it Note became an official product and a huge hit.

(Another 3M scientist came up with a cool substance called Scotchgard, which helps prevent dirt from staining fabric. But that wasn’t what she set out to create: Scotchgard grew out of an attempt to make a synthetic rubber to be used in airplane fuel lines. One day some of the new substance spilled on her assistant’s canvas shoe, and they couldn’t get it off. As the tennis shoe grew older, it got dingy everywhere except where the substance had spilled. It took three more years of tinkering, but they had their Scotchgard.)

Rubber got its name when English scientist Joseph Priestley discovered that a wad of it was good at “rubbing out” pencil mistakes on paper. But the rubber really hit the road literally when someone figured out how to stabilize it for use in boots, tires, and the like. The problem was that rubber melted if it got too hot and shattered if it got too cold.

A colorful character named Charles Goodyear tried to fix this problem in several ways, but it wasn’t until (according to legend) he accidentally dropped a blob of rubber and sulfur on a hot stove that he found something that worked. Goodyear denied this was a mistake, but the point is that he had the savvy to know he was on to something good.

Rubber shortages during World War II prompted the U.S. government to look for a synthetic rubber. It seemed like a good idea to try to make this substitute for rubber out of something plentiful, and researchers eventually settled on silicon, the second most common element on Earth. An inventor at General Electric added a little boric acid to silicon oil and developed a gooey, bouncy substance.

This substance failed as a substitute for rubber, but after the war it became an extremely popular toy known as Silly Putty. Apollo 8 astronauts later used it to stabilize their tools in zero gravity. (The astronauts carried their Silly Putty in sterling silver eggs.) Today, Binney & Smith (the company that makes Silly Putty) produces 20,000 eggs’ worth of Silly Putty a day.

Wilson Greatbatch came along, people with irregular heartbeats had to control their pulse using a sometimes painful external device invented in 1952 by Paul Zoll. The external pacemaker was about the size of a small television, and administered life saving jolts of electricity, which sometimes burned the skin.

Greatbatch, a medical researcher, was working on a device to record irregular heartbeats when he accidentally inserted a resistor of the wrong size. He noticed that the circuit pulsed, stopped, and pulsed again just like a human heart.

After two years of tinkering, Greatbatch had made the first implantable pacemaker. He later invented a corrosion free lithium battery to power it, and millions have benefited.

Penicillin is another famous example of a mistake turned good. In 1928 scientist Alexander Fleming noticed that mold spores had contaminated one of the bacteria samples he had left by an open window. Instead of discarding his ruined experiment, Fleming took a close look and noticed the mold was dissolving the harmful bacteria. And that’s how we got penicillin, which helps people around the world recover from infections.

This brings to mind a powerful quote by scientist Louis Pasteur, “Where observation is concerned, chance favors only the prepared mind.”
(Michael Michalko is the author of Thinkertoys: A Handbook of Creative Thinking Techniques; Cracking Creativity: The Thinking Strategies of Creative Geniuses; and Thinkpak: A Brainstorming Card Deck. His new book Creative Thinkering: Putting Your Imagination to Work has just been released.

One response to this post.

  1. Love it!


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