If you have ever spilled a drink, dropped something or burned an entree you might have missed an opportunity to make millions. These five accidental inventions not only became lucrative brands but turned into staples of American culture.
Accident: When naval engineer Richard James dropped a tension spring he was working with, his imagination took flight. Luckily for James the spring hit a series of flat objects before settling on the floor causing the metal spring to look like it was “stepping” down a set of stairs. He quickly told his wife what had happened and they borrowed $500 to manufacture the first Slinky. In 1945, two years after the accidental dropped Slinky, Betty and Richard James sold 400 Slinkys within a few minutes at the Gimbles department store in Philadelphia.
Result: More than 250 million Slinkys were sold by 2000 when the Slinky was officially inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame. In 2003, the Slinky won another honor when it was named on the “Century of Toys List” released by the Toy Industry Association. The list recognized unforgettable products released in the past 100 years. Slinky shared the bill with big names such as Monopoly and Lite-Brite. That’s not bad for a toy created from the accidental drop of some ship parts.
2. Post-it Notes
Accident: Dr. Spencer Silver was working at 3M in the 1970s when he attempted to invent a better formula for glue, but only came up with a mediocre-at best adhesive. Instead of tossing out the weak glue he tried to market it as a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive with absolutely no luck.
Result: It seemed like all hope was lost for this reusable adhesive until six years later when a colleague of Silver’s, Arthur Fry, used the glue on the backs of paper slips to mark his place in his hymnal book. Fry soon sold the idea to 3M and 10 years after the mistaken creation launched in 1980. The post-it note is a favorite of artists, prankster, students and businessmen, everyone can find a use for the handy notes. Although post-it has never publicly stated how much they make off of the invention, according to the Secrets of the City website, “In 1998, when Post-it Notes filed a lawsuit against a copycat competitor, a 3M company spokesperson said that worldwide sales of Post-it Notes and their spin-offs was around one billion dollars a year.” Next time you think your latest creation is a flop maybe you should hold onto it for a few years until someone can provide a fresh perspective.
3. Chocolate Chip Cookies
Accident: When Ruth Wakefield, co-owner of a tourist lodge named The Toll House Inn, ran out of bakers’ chocolate, she had to improvise. In 1930, Wakefield substituted missing bakers’ chocolate with pieces of a semi-sweet bar of chocolate given to her from Andrew Nestle. She assumed that the chocolate would be absorbed into her cookies but what happened instead resulted in the staple dessert of Americans everywhere, the chocolate chip cookie.
Result: These accidental cookies became very popular at the Toll House Inn and resulted in the recipe being published in a Boston newspaper. Nestle saw a spike in his chocolate bar sales and reached an agreement with Wakefield: He could print the recipe on his packaging and she would receive free Nestle chocolate for the rest of her life. Nestle decided to re-design the bar, so to speak, and began offering “Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels.” Nestle had a total of about $10.4 billion in sales in 2009, according to a press release. It’s nearly impossible to guess how many chocolate chip cookies have been purchased and consumed since Ruth Wakefield accidentally created them 80 years ago.
4. Silly Putty
Accident: Similar to the creation of the Post-it note, Silly Putty was born from an unsuccessful attempt to make something else. Some debate who exactly created the toy, but according to the Silly Putty website it was James Wright, an engineer working for GE’s lab in New Haven, Conn. When the U.S. had its rubber supply cut off during WWII, the War Production Board asked industry workers to try to come up with a substitute for rubber. Wright missed the mark in 1943 when his boric acid and silicone oil combination produced a gooey substance that lost its shape when left alone.
Result: GE still had hope for the strange substance, sending it out to engineers, scientists and industrialists. Six years after its creation, the mushy material landed in the hands of Ruth Fallgatter. Fallgatter, owner of Block Shop toy store, saw potential in the failed rubber and contacted marketing consultant Peter Hodgson to discuss the putty. Strangely enough, the putty did very well but Fallgatter lost interest. Hodgson still had hope, and despite being in extreme debt, borrowed money to buy more samples. After brainstorming a name change, he began selling one ounce eggs full of the putty under the name Silly Putty. In 2000 Silly Putty was also inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame and currently earns an estimated $6 million per year.
5. Potato Chip
Accident: This list item was more of an intended mistake, if that’s possible. The potato chip was created when a frustrated customer and an angry chef did not see eye-to-eye. According to the story, resort hotel chef George Crum was growing increasingly agitated when a patron kept sending his fried potatoes back claiming they were not crispy enough. When Crum had had enough of the patrons complaints he decided to slice the potatoes as thin as possible and soak them in oil.
Result: The patron absolutely loved the new culinary creation and the potato chip was born in Saratoga Springs, N.Y., in 1853. The concept of the potato chip began to spread, and in 1910, the Mike-sell’s Potato Chip Company was founded in Dayton, Ohio. The company claims to be the oldest potato chip company in the nation and celebrated its 100th birthday this year. Today, potato chip manufacturers operate throughout the nation with yearly sales totaling in the billions.