The plan Packaging material is far from being on the minds of the American Al Fielding and the Swiss Marc Chavannes. They’re in pursuit of a different strategy: the Bubble Wrap they invented is meant to provide a low-cost and, above all, washable textured wallpaper, an idea that’s assumed to have at least partly been owed to the questionable styling of trendy wallpapers in those days. The prototype consists of two shower curtains sealed together including the air bubbles trapped between them. On November 27, 1959, the two inventors file for a U.S. patent and establish Sealed Air Corporation a year later.
The coincidence Unfortunately, customers aren’t inclined to paste this innovation to their walls, so a new strategy is needed. Now, its inventors attempt to sell the wrap as greenhouse insulation. This plan doesn’t pan out really well – but the young company’s marketing expert, Frederick W. Bowers, subsequently has an even brighter idea for a happy ending: using the wrap as a protective packaging material. Bowers contacts IBM when the company is in the process of preparing deliveries of the new IBM 1401 mainframe computers. This marks the beginning of the popping wrap’s success story.
The outcome Today, Bubble Wrap – not least thanks to the burgeoning online retail business – is so successful that its annual production volume is said to suffice for wrapping around the Earth ten times. Sealed Air has become a global packaging corporation with 4.7-billion-dollar annual sales and some 15,000 employees. Notwithstanding the environmental aspect, Bubble Wrap is not only successfully used as a stress reducer but, in 2004, is even included in the New York Museum of Modern Art’s collection. There’s even a day dedicated to Bubble Wrap, the Bubble Wrap Appreciation Day, held on the last Monday in January. Pow!
The plan After the end of the Second World War, Pietro Ferrero is standing in his pastry shop making chocolate confection. However, the pastry maker is faced with a problem: the strict rationing rules of the post-war era. In 1946, cocoa beans are hard to come by in Alba, Italy, so Ferrero adds ground hazelnuts to extend the paste. He calls the finished product delivered in loafs and sold in small slices pasta gianduja.
The coincidence But how do the chocolate loafs turn into Nutella? That’s when coincidence comes into play – in the form of hot Italian days that cause the chocolate to melt. Legend has it that retailers fill the viscous paste into jars during the hot summer of 1949. Pietro Ferrero’s son, Michele, adopts the idea, adds a more liquid vegetable oil to the crumbly chocolate mixture – et voila, he’s come up with the brown creamy spread.
The outcome In 1951, the supercrema gianduja spread hits market, albeit has to be renamed in 1962 due to a new Italian law prohibiting the use of the super prefix in brand names. The portmanteau “Nutella” is invented, combining the English word for nut and the Italian feminine diminutive -ella. In 1964, an Italian designer with the fitting name of Lelo Cremonesi creates the jar for the chocolate spread.
Nutella consists of 60 percent vegetable oil, so it’s practically a saladUnknown
In the late 1930s, the Swiss Walter Jäger is working on a poison gas sensor. The physicist ionizes air in a measurement device and applies voltage. Gas entering the device is supposed to bind the ions and thereby reduce the electrical conductivity of the sensor. That’s the plan.
Albeit, the measurement device measures nothing. Nothing at all. Frustrated, Jäger lights a cigarette – and the ampere meter records a drop in electric current. The smoke from the cigarette has achieved what wasn’t possible in that way with poison gas: The ions cling to the smoke particles. Which proves that smoking is a health hazard but in rare cases leads to inventions protecting us from death by inhaling smoke.
However, there’s a catch to the contraption: Because ionization smoke detectors contain minimal amounts of radioactive materials, they’re prohibited for private use in Europe. The idea, though, lives on: Today, optical smoke detectors are commonly used. In them, emitted light rays, which are normally absorbed, are deflected by smoke particles toward a photo lens, thus triggering an alarm. In addition, app-based WiFi smoke detectors are now available that transmit warning signals to smartphones.
The plan … starts with Roy Plunkett, an employee of the U.S. chemical corporation DuPont, who is conducting research with tetrafluoroethylene in search for a new refrigerant for refrigerators in 1938.
The coincidence Legend has it that the young chemist froze the gas in a pressurized canister that lost pressure overnight. The next morning, Plunkett discovers white, wax-like crumbs inside the canister. The molecules of the gas had bonded into long chains. The resulting polytetrafluoroethylene is highly inert and heat-resistant, and has minimal surface adhesion. Plunkett names the new polymer Teflon – and has no idea of what it may be used for.
The outcome In 1941, Plunkett has the material with the abbreviation PTFE patented – and is still at a loss about what to do. Purportedly, in the 1950s, the French engineer Marc Grégoire had the idea of coating a fishing rod with the substance so that detangling the rod would be easier. However, only Grégoire’s wife, Colette, comes up with the right strategy of coating pots and pans with PTFE. In 1956, Grégoire founds the company Tefal in Rumilly. The word Teflon in turn becomes a generic term in modern use of language – as a synonym for people’s ability to simply let things slide off them.
By the way … The fact that Teflon was the result of NASA research has long been debunked. A New York retailer of household goods used this lie to promote its frying pans in 1970.
The plan The substance sildenafil is originally tested for the purpose of developing a medication to treat coronary heart disease. The research scientists at Pfizer are hoping that the substance might be able to relax the blood vessels in the heart to alleviate the pains caused by angina pectoris.
The coincidence The clinical trials are rather disappointing, especially because the substance degrades too quickly in the human body and interactions with nitroglycerin, the standard angina pectoris medication, are discovered. In addition, many of the trial patients report strange side effects. The whole project takes a truly remarkable turn when many men refuse to return the remaining drugs after the trial has ended, claiming that the medication somehow made them feel generally well. Subsequently, unknown perpetrators even break into a sildenafil laboratory. Pfizer launches a new clinical trial, this time with patients suffering from erectile dysfunction …
The outcome Commonly known blue pills. In 1998, Viagra is approved in the United States and Europe.
By the way … A second career for failed medications is not uncommon: Prozac, now known as an anti-depressant, was originally developed as a drug against hypertension. The clinical trial patients suddenly found themselves in high spirits. The pharmaceutical industry refers to this (cost-saving) strategy as drug repositioning.
Surprise always happens where it’s not expectedWilhelm Busch
The plan The Briton John Walker is in search of a flammable substance for munitions production. For this purpose, the pharmacist from Stockton-on-Tees mixes sulfide of antimony and chlorate of potash with gum and starch.
The coincidence The stuff burns better than expected. When residues of the compound stick to the stirrer Walker tries to wipe the paste off the rough surface – the stirrer bursts into flames – marking the birth of the friction match.
The outcome Walker’s idea doesn’t make him a wealthy man. Instead, a Londoner named Samuel Jones hears about the accidental invention and files a patent application for it in 1828. He calls it Lucifers – due to its unsavory sulfur smell.
By the way … In 1930, the Swedish industrialist Ivar Kreuger develops a clever marketing strategy for matches: He grants large loans to Germany and 16 other countries at favorable terms. In return, he’s awarded the “state monopoly on matches” and able to sell them at excessive prices. When the monopoly expires in Germany in 1983 prices drop by more than 30 percent.
The plan Erasing a writing error.
The coincidence To understand the mistake, one should know that breadcrumbs were used to remove graphite marks since about the middle of the 16th century. In 1770, the British optician and instrument maker Edward Nairne is sitting at his desk, makes a writing error – and doesn’t grab a breadcrumb, but – inadvertently – a piece of rubber. Now that raises the question of why a piece of rubber is lying on Nairne’s desk. The reason is that 30 years earlier the Frenchman Charles Marie de La Condamine while traveling in Amazonia in far- away Brazil has described the Indian method of producing natural rubber as well as its properties. This sparks enormous curiosity about the new substance and inspires numerous strategies concerning all the things it might be used for. Considering this, it wouldn’t be unusual for a piece of rubber to be lying around on master craftsman Edward Nairne’s (obviously very cluttered) desk, which by chance turns out to be extremely effective for error correction.
The outcome Nairne names the new tool rubber and goes on to sell the half-inch (a little more than one centimeter) cubes for the relatively high price of three shillings.
By the way … Because Joseph Priestley, a highly popular U.S. natural explorer and theologian, was the first to write down the principle of the rubber eraser, he was deemed to be its sole inventor for many years.
The plan On a day in 1780, Luigi Galvani plans to eat frog legs cooked in oil.
The coincidence Galvani places the dissected frog legs next to an “electrifying machine” – a very popular gadget among techies back in those days. Galvani’s frog legs start twitching as soon as he touches them with a knife. Based on his observation, the natural scientist establishes the theory of animal electricity, assuming that by using the knife he was able to dissipate the residual vitality from the animal. Today, we might refer to this as electrical discharge.
The outcome When Galvani’s treatise of animal electricity is published in 1791, his compatriot Alessandro Volta repeats the experiment. According to the physicist’s theory, the metals are responsible for the twitching instead of an electrical fluid in the animal itself. Volta combines diverse metals, wets them with acids and finds that electrical voltage is generated in the event of contact. The voltaic pile has been invented – the prototype of the modern battery.
The more human beings proceed by plan, the more effectively they may be hit by accidentFriedrich Dürrenmatt
The plan Although it’s a fact that escapes retrospective investigation, Édouard Bénédictus has no intention of inventing safety glass at the beginning of the 20th century. Another fact is that the Frenchman is not only a chemist but also a composer, writer and influential artist of Art Déco.
The coincidence In 1903, Bénédictus accidentally knocks over a glass flask in his laboratory. The flask doesn’t shatter because it’s covered with a thin plastic layer on the inside: a residue of evaporated liquid celluloid. Purportedly, Bénédictus jots down the incident and then forgets about it again. He’ll only remember the event with the flask when reading in a Paris newspaper about a car accident in which a girl was severely injured by the splintering glass of the windshield.
The outcome Following numerous experiments, Bénédictus is awarded a patent for his laminated glass in 1909. In 1910, he develops a three-ply safety glass called Triplex that will be installed in aircraft and gas masks in the First World War. Two years later, Triplex Safety Glass Co. Ltd., a company founded in the UK, produces laminated glass using the method developed by Bénédictus and advertises it with the slogan: “Fit Triplex and be safe!”
The plan Design an oscillator that records heartbeats – that was what two physicians commissioned the American electrical engineer Wilson Greatbatch to do in 1956.
The coincidence While working on the project, Greatbatch, from a box of resistors, grabs a cylinder marked brown-black-green and 100 times higher resistance instead of the right combination of brown-black-orange. A fortunate mistake. Greatbatch, an inventor who filed a total of 325 patents, recognizes the potential of the failed oscillator (which pulses for 1.8 milliseconds and then stops for a full second) as a cardiac pacemaker and founds a company.
The outcome Initially, there’s no interest in the product – until Greatbatch meets Dr. William Chardack in 1958. The chief of surgery at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Buffalo asks Greatbatch to help him with a defective oximeter. Greatbatch is unable to comply with the request and instead asks the surgeon if he’d be interested in a cardiac pacemaker the size of a matchbox. Chardack tells him: “If you can do that, you can save 10,000 lives a year.” On June 9, 1960, Chardack implants the first cardiac pacemaker in a patient.
By the way ... More or less at the same time as Greatbatch, the Swedish physician Åke Senning together with engineers develops an implantable pacemaker as well and implants it in a patient in 1958. Even so, Greatbatch today is deemed to have provided the key impetus and to have been the sole inventor of the fully implantable pacemaker because he complements the device by a crucial innovation: Only a long-term lithium battery turns the cardiac pacemaker into an autonomous endurance runner. By contrast, the version developed by the swift Swedes requires regular external charging of the battery (which doesn’t have a long life in the first place) – and, consequently, imposes severe constraints on the patients.
The plan Dr. John Harvey Kellogg intends to bake a bread that will be conducive to digestion and sexual abstinence. Perhaps it should be mentioned in this context that the deeply religious Kellogg, in 1876, was the director of a then small health resort in Michigan, the Battle Creek Sanitarium, where he treats patients with a strict vegetarian diet, electric shocks, laughing therapies and ice-cold baths. Sounds curious, but the health resort will subsequently enjoy enormous popularity – even with Henry Ford and Thomas A. Edison.
The coincidence The idea with the bread doesn’t really pan out, albeit Kellogg, in 1894, inadvertently leaves some cooked wheat to sit overnight. Instead of throwing away the stale dough the next day, he forces it through rollers in hopes of obtaining long sheets of it. However, instead of sheets, he obtains flakes. The first ones are served (with a little salt) at the Sanitarium on March 7, 1897 under the name of Granose – and are well received as a medicinal form of nutrition.
The outcome That the accidental invention of Granosa would turn into the world’s most successful breakfast cereal is owed to Kellogg’s brother, Will Keith, who’s responsible for marketing. First the crumbs are converted into appetizing flakes made from tasty corn instead of from bland wheat. However, a huge market only develops when Will Keith Kellogg, in 1906, to the chagrin of his brother, mixes cane sugar into the recipe – the two brothers have a falling out and will never talk to each other again.
The plan The New Yorker Thomas Adams, who has tried his luck in many areas from photography to selling glass, purchases a gum-like paste called chicle from the former Mexican general Antonio López de Santa Anna, who’s living in exile in Staten Island. His objective is to produce low-cost tires from the milky sap of the Mexican sapodilla tree.
The coincidence All attempts to vulcanize chicle in order to use it for horse and cart wheels and to become rich in that way are doomed to fail. No chance. However, at some point in time, Adams observes a girl in a drugstore buying paraffin wax for chewing. He recalls having heard that the Maya peoples were already chewing chicle. He puts a piece of it in his mouth – and has found the perfect use for this raw material.
The outcome In 1869, the first patent for the production of chewing gum is filed. The first chicle balls are sold in a drugstore in Hoboken, New Jersey, in 1871. They’re tasteless. Adams will only mix flavorings into the gum at a later point in time. As a result, “Black Jack” that hits the market in 1884 tastes like licorice. Today, 379 billion chewing gums are sold worldwide every year.
The plan What kind of a plan? For starters, the Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral while hunting in the Alps in 1941 is strictly upset about the large number of burs clinging to his pants and his dog’s coat. In case anyone should ask: the dog’s name was Milka.
The coincidence Georges de Mestral has had an interest in the way technical things function from an early age. While inspecting the burs he took home in detail under a microscope he soon comes to realize that the tiny, elastic hooks might serve as a closure system to connect two materials in a simple way.
The outcome Ten years later, Georges de Mestral has his connecting invention legally protected under the name of Velco, a portmanteau combining the words “velours” (French for velvet) and “crochet” (French for hook). Today, his company of the same name is still the world market leader with more than 2,500 employees worldwide. And if anyone should happen to be asked for a brief explanation of the term bionics: pesky burs are an excellent example showing how nature (very profitably in this case) can be converted into technology.