Accidental paths to invention

Accidents happen. Sometimes accidents are weird or embarrassing or hurtful. And sometimes accidents can lead to great inventions.

Birgit Krols’ “Accidental Inventions: The Chance Discoveries That Changed Our Lives” (2012) gives us an entertaining, easy-to-read glimpse at some of the useful inventions resulting from “mere fluke, through laziness, absent-mindedness, or carelessness” (page 6).

The book emphasizes that invention is part discovery (hard work), part creativity (figuring out how to use it) and part salesmanship (convincing others that they need it). And it inadvertently shows us how we can encourage inventiveness when we are trying to invent a product or even solve a problem.

Here are 5 ideas to kick-start inventiveness and creativity:

* Discover a new use for an old product. You don’t have to invent something new, just a new way to use it. Kleenex tissues, invented in 1924 as a replacement for cotton in gas masks, were re-introduced as disposable tissues in 1930. Crafters do this all the time, turning old building materials into new furniture and artwork.

* Find a creative use for a failed invention. So it’s not exactly what you were looking for. Can it be used in another way? Superglue was invented by chemist Harry Coover in 1942 during his search for a ultratransparent plastic, and was ignored for over 10 years before being marketed. Post-its were invented by 3M scientist Spencer Silver in 1980 during his search for a strong adhesive, but it took his colleague, Arthur Fry, to see the practical uses for the weak glue.

* Get inspired by boredom. Frisbees were originally pie tins made by Frisbie Baking Co. in 1871, until bored students realized that they could be thrown in the air.

* Turn a nuisance into a solution. Piggy banks were invented around 1900 by an English potter asked to make “pygg” (clay) banks, and crafted “pig” banks instead. Velcro was invented by electrical engineer Georges de Mestral in 1941 after noticing burrs of burdock caught in his socks and his dog’s fur.

* Be cautiously careless; or, Don’t be discouraged by carelessness. Scotchgard was invented by 3M scientist Patsy Sherman in 1952 when she accidentally dropped a bottle of synthetic latex on her assistant’s white fabric tennis shoes.

As science fiction writer Isaac Asimov said, “The most exciting phrase to hear in science, the one that heralds new discoveries, is not ‘Eureka!’ but ‘That’s funny…'”

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