I find it fascinating when I hear life changing stories that literally altered our society in a variety of different ways that the majority of us don’t even realize. I’ve always thought about the moments right down to the exact second that launched an empire or product development regardless on the positive or negative effects it has on all of our lives. For example, what if Ray Kroc didn’t walk in to the McDonalds Brothers fast food establishment in 1954, would he have found another business venture to pioneer as he did with the American fast food industry?
In 1954, Ray Kroc, who was a milkshake machine salesman at the time, became inspired by the evident financial success of the brothers’ concept, immediately grasping the restaurants’ enormous potential. He partnered with the McDonald Brothers, and within a few years turned their small idea into the huge franchise that would become the McDonald’s Corporation.
What if Leo Baekeland had a bad day and continued to set out to make an insulator without taking notice of his accidental creation of plastic? The Belgian-born chemist who in 1907 developed the first plastic item! Really think about this, chances are that, right now, you can spot a half dozen plastic items without even having to turn your head. In fact, if you’re wearing glasses with lightweight or scratch-resistant lenses, chances are that everything you see is, in a sense, plastic-wrapped. Interesting to think that if Leo overlooked this chance creation, would someone else have created this commonly used contribution to society. How long would it have taken that person? Who knows…
Louis Pasteur once said, “chance favors the prepared mind.” That’s the genius behind all these accidental inventions – the scientists were prepared. They did their science on the brink and were able to see the magic in a mistake, set-back, or coincidence. Louis Pasteur was a French chemist and microbiologist who was one of the most important founders of medical microbiology. He is remembered for his remarkable breakthroughs in the causes and preventions of diseases. His discoveries reduced mortality from puerperal fever, and he created the first vaccines for rabies and anthrax. His experiments supported the germ theory of disease.
Some of the world’s most famous, civilization-altering discoveries happened by accident. Take Penicillin, for example. The guy who discovered it, Sir Alexander Fleming, simply forgot to clean up his work station one night and returned to discover the world’s first antibiotic growing right there in his unwashed petri dish.
But that’s not what this particular list is about. All the inventions here were invented very much on purpose – they just didn’t end up being used in the way their inventors had intended. Only after these inventions were repurposed – often in wildly unexpected ways – did they become famous, perhaps even civilization-altering.
This list wouldn’t be complete without at least one absent-minded professor. But it’s not flubber clocking in at No. 1, it’s a life saving medical device. That pacemaker sewn into a loved one’s chest actually came about because American engineer Wilson Greatbatch reached into a box and pulled out the wrong thing. It’s true. Greatbatch was working on making a circuit to help record fast heart sounds. He reached into a box for a resistor in order to finish the circuit and pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000-ohm one. The circuit pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for one second. Then it repeated. The sound was as old as man: a perfect heartbeat.
2. X-ray images
In the late 1800s, the world became a seemingly magical place. Scientists discovered radiation, radio waves, and other invisible forces of nature. For a while there, many serious researchers joined seances and believed in ghosts. Science had discovered so many mysterious phenomena – things that the eye could not see but were definitely there – that many people wondered, what else might be out there? German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered one of these invisible powers by accident.
Röntgen experimented with cathode-ray tubes, basically glass tubes with the air sucked out and a special gas pumped in. They work kinda like modern-day fluorescent light bulbs. When Röntgen ran electricity through the gas, the tube would glow. But something strange happened after he surrounded the tube with black cardboard. When he turned on the machine, a chemical a few feet away started to glow. The cardboard should have prevented any light from escaping, so what caused this distant glow? Little did he know that the cathode-ray tube had been sending out more than just light. It shot out invisible rays that could pass right through paper, wood, and even skin. The lab chemical that lit up – the one that tipped off Röntgen – reacted to these rays. He called the phenomenon X-rays. The X stood for “unknown.”
Röntgen went on to capture the first X-ray images, including a shot of his wife’s hand (pictured, above). Upon seeing this skeletal image, she exclaimed, “I have seen my own death!”
Listerine was invented 133 years ago, first as a surgical antiseptic, but also as a cure for gonorrhea (don’t try that at home). An article from 1888 recommends Listerine “for sweaty feet, and soft corns, developing between the toes.” Over the course of the next century, it was marketed as a refreshing additive to cigarettes, a cure for the common cold, and as a dandruff treatment. But it was in the 1920s that the powerful, germ-killing liquid finally landed on its most lucrative use as a magical cure for bad breath.
Propecia, that ubiquitous drug used to treat male-pattern baldness, was originally marketed as Proscar, a drug to treat the benign enlargement of the prostate. After five years on the market in the 1990s, it became clear that one of the side effects of Proscar was – you can practically see the money signs flashing in the pharmaceutical marketers’ eyes – hair growth on bald men. Cha-ching!
Viagra, or Sildenafil, as it’s officially known, was originally conceived as a treatment for hypertension, angina, and other symptoms of heart disease. But Phase I clinical trials revealed that while the drug wasn’t great at treating what it was supposed to treat, male test subjects were experiencing a rather unexpected side effect: erections. A few years later, in 1998, the drug took U.S. markets by storm as a treatment for penile dysfunction and became an overnight success. It now rakes in an estimated $1.9 billion dollars a year.
Brandy, that delightful, caramel-colored after dinner drink, started off as a byproduct of transporting wine. About 900 years ago, merchants would essentially boil the water off of large quantities of wine in order to both transport it more easily, and save on customs taxes, which were levied by volume. After a while, a few of these merchants, bored perhaps after a long day on the road, dipped into their inventory and discovered that the concentrated, or distilled, wine actually tasted pretty darn good. Voila! Brandy was born.
There are many stories of accidentally invented food: the potato chip was born when cook George Crum (yes, really his name!) tried to silence a persnickety customer who kept sending french fries back to the kitchen for being soggy; Popsicles were invented when Frank Epperson left a drink outside in the cold overnight; and ice cream cones were invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis. Coca-Cola, one of the world’s most famous brand names, was originally invented as an alternative to morphine addiction, and to treat headaches and relieve anxiety. Coke’s inventor, John Pemberton — a Confederate veteran of the Civil War who himself suffered from a morphine addiction — first invented a sweet, alcoholic drink infused with coca leaves for an extra kick. He called it Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. It would be another two decades before that recipe was honed, sweetened, carbonated and, eventually, marketed into what it is today: the most popular soda in the world.
Two words that you don’t ever want to hear said in the same sentence are “Whoops!” and “radioactive.” But in the case of physicist Henri Becquerel’s surprise discovery, it was an accident that brought radioactivity to light. Back in 1896 Becquerel was fascinated by two things: natural fluorescence and the newfangled X-ray. He ran a series of experiments to see if naturally fluorescent minerals produced X-rays after they had been left out in the sun. One problem – he was doing these experiments in the winter, and there was one week with a long stretch of overcast skies. He left his equipment wrapped up together in a drawer and waited for a sunny day.
When he got back to work, Becquerel realized that the uranium rock he had left in the drawer had imprinted itself on a photographic plate without being exposed to sunlight first. There was something very special about that rock. Working with Marie and Pierre Curie, he discovered that that something was radioactivity.
9. Vulcanized Rubber
Charles Goodyear had been waiting years for a happy accident when it finally occurred.
Goodyear spent a decade finding ways to make rubber easier to work with while being resistant to heat and cold. Nothing was having the effect he wanted. One day he spilled a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat charred the mixture, but didn’t ruin it. When Goodyear picked up the accident, he noticed that the mixture had hardened but was still quite usable. At last! The breakthrough he had been waiting for! His vulcanized rubber is used in everything from tires, to shoes, to hockey pucks.
The modeling “Doh,” with the unique smell, that children (and even adults) love to play with was not originally used for fun and games. In fact, it was used for the exact opposite: cleaning.
Before World War II, coal was commonly used to heat homes, which left soot stains on walls. Noah and Joseph McVicker of Kutol Products, a Cincinnati-based soap manufacturer, created the doughy material to rub the soot off wallpaper. However, after the war, natural gas became a more common heat source. As coal was phased out, few people needed Kutol’s cleaning product. The company faced bankruptcy.
In the early 1950s, Joseph McVicker learned that his sister, a schoolteacher, used the material in her classroom as modeling dough. And thus, Play-Doh was born. The McVickers decided to market their nontoxic creation as a children’s toy. In 1955, they tested their product at nurseries and schools. A year later, they created the company Rainbow Crafts. The “Play-Doh smell” came from the McVickers trying to hide the original cleaning aroma. Many ingredients of Play-Doh are not publicly known, but it is said that the McVickers added an artificial almond scent to the recipe.
In 1956, Play-Doh was first sold at Woodward and Lothrop, a department store in Washington, D.C. It came in only one color – off-white. Colored Play-Doh came out the following year and was sold at more department stores, such as Macy’s in New York. The McVickers became millionaires as Play-Doh ads were broadcast on kids’ shows such as “Captain Kangaroo,” “Ding Dong School,” and “Romper Room.”
Just Some Advice – PR is very much a strong element of great marketing but just having a good product won’t always make your startup product or service successful.
Listen to this unfortunate story I recently heard. Entrepreneur X and his team spent months building a “perfect” app. They poured over every line of code and aligned every pixel. They kept their heads down and worked hard. The project wrapped up and they pushed it live. On the precipice of launch day they hired temporary help to handle all of the buzz they were sure they were about to receive.
When the startup launched the next day, sales were completely flat. This company bought into the myth that a good product is all you need to build a successful business.
A good product is simply not enough. It’s an ingredient but it’s not the whole cake. Multiple things need to happen asynchronously with development to maximize your products launch. This is why having a hustling co-founder is so important. Let the engineers focus on building platforms and let the hustler focus on these things.
Marketing begins well before the product launches. If you want a good example of a marketing plan, This website is a fantastic place to start. Give Tapia Advertising a call and we will develop a strategy based marketing plan for your product or service target demographic.
Who is your product for? You need to tell your products story in a way that makes sense to your target market. Your narrative isn’t a bolted on feature, it’s the heart of your product. Your narrative should effect everything from design decisions, to customer support, to which features you implement.
P.S. If your target market is “everyone”, you need to focus.
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