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If not for some very lucky breaks, we wouldn't have toys like the Slinky or treats like the Popsicle — or lifesaving medicine like penicillin. Here are stories of five inventors' happy accidents.
In 1905, 11-year-old Frank Epperson used a wooden stirrer to mix together a bowl of sugary soda powder and water. He left it outside overnight and, according to NPR, returned in the morning to find it had frozen around the stirrer. Realizing his genius, he gobbled it up and started selling more of them to his neighbors. He called it 'Epsicle,' after his last name.
As an adult, Epperson sold his epsicles at an amusement park and eventually patented his invention. His own children convinced him to change the treat's name. Epperson's kids called it Pop's 'sicle, and the name 'Popsicle' stuck.
This toy that can glide down a set of stairs was created by accident by Richard Jones. The naval engineer was trying to make a meter that could monitor power on naval battleships, according to Business Insider, when one of his tension springs fell to the floor. He noticed it slinked across the floor and decided to debut the item as a toy in 1945. It was an instant hit, and Jones made millions.
Dr. Alexander Fleming returned from vacation to a messy lab in 1928. As he sorted through petri dishes that had colonies of staphylococcus growing inside — a bacteria that causes sore throats and other ailments — he noticed one old petri dish had mold growing in it, PBS reported. Looking closely, he realized the mold had stopped the bacteria in that dish from growing. The mold was Penicillium notatum.
Scientists at Oxford University spent years studying the fungus — isolating the active parts that fought against bacteria, purifying it and figuring out how to use it. Once penicillin was tested and ready to be used on people, it changed medicine forever, easily curing infections that were once life-threatening.
Chocolate chip cookies
The legend of the chocolate cookie's invention probably isn't true. The myth around the first batch of the delicious cookies goes like this: Ruth Wakefield was baking cookies at her restaurant, the Toll House, in 1939 when she ran out of an ingredient — either nuts or baker's chocolate, depending on who's telling the story. She substituted the missing ingredient with a chopped up bar of chocolate, and the first chocolate chip cookie was born.
But Wakefield was a talented baker and a perfectionist, according to the New Yorker, so some people have argued she never would have let her restaurant run out of an important ingredient. They believe she put a lot of hard work into developing and perfecting the cookie — though even she probably couldn't have predicted how popular it would become.
It might have seemed like a failure at first when Dr. Spencer Silver invented the sticky adhesive that is now on the back of Post-its. He was trying to create the strongest, toughest, stickiest adhesive — what he'd invented stuck lightly and came off easily! He'd accidentally discovered microspheres, though few people were interested at the time, according to Post-it's website.
Years later, another scientist that worked with Dr. Silver at 3M had a problem. The scraps of paper he used to mark the hymns he sang with his church choir kept falling out of his hymnal. He realized he needed something sticky to mark his parts — and started working with Silver to develop the Post-its we know today.