10 Inventions That Thrived in Ways Their Creators Never Expected

Things don’t always work out the way you intend them to be. There are many cases throughout history of people creating things or having ideas that they saw through to completion, only for the finished product to turn out very differently—or to be used very differently—than how the creator intended. That’s part of the crazy game that is pushing one’s ideas and thoughts out into the world, after all. The world will sometimes push back in unexpected ways!

Take Post-It notes, for example. They were created after a tinkerer was trying to make an adhesive substance similar to glue and accidentally realized it would work better splattered across a bunch of thin yellow papers. Or what about Play-Doh? It was originally developed decades ago as a wallpaper cleaner, only to turn into a fun and iconic children’s toy. In this list, we’ll take a look at ten more stories just like that. These ten creations ended up thriving, but not in the way their inventors originally intended. Just goes to show that you can’t predict what will happen once your good idea goes out into the world!

Related: Ten Absurd Inventions That Are More Useful Than You Might Think

10 Viagra

Viagra was originally intended to treat heart-related conditions. The medicine known clinically as Sildenafil was first developed by researchers to treat things like hypertension and angina. Even though it is very famously known today as a medicine for battling erectile dysfunction, that wasn’t its intended use or purpose at first.

Instead, scientists were looking for ways to treat hypertension and other issues of the heart. They wanted to make an oral treatment for it so people suffering from persistent heart problems could simply pop the pill and improve the function of their heart. Sildenafil worked to improve and increase blood flow and strengthen the veins and arteries of the heart, pushing blood out elsewhere into the body much faster.

Well, it certainly did that. Very early on, researchers discovered that Viagra was seriously helping the blood flow, um, down there. But that’s not the only place it helped! Studies showed that Viagra assisted people with things like systemic sclerosis and digital ulceration. It also appeared to assist patients who suffered respiratory disorders, congestive cardiac failure, and even stroke patients who were trying to recover from that life-threatening issue.

But why? Well, as it turns out, all the disorders Viagra seemed to help were ones characterized by a deficient blood supply in the affected region. The fact that Sildenafil worked so well to improve blood supply and flow was a godsend to heart, respiratory, and stroke patients. And the fact that it also improved blood flow to, well, you know… that was a godsend for many men, too.[1]

9 Slinky

The Slinky was invented entirely by accident by a mechanical engineer named Richard James. The year was 1943, and he was working on tinkering with his idea for springs that could keep sensitive ship equipment steady through rough seas. His thought was on World War II, of course, and helping the American cause in the fight against Nazi Germany and Imperial Japan.

But one day, he accidentally knocked some of his samples off a shelf. Unexpectedly, he watched them “walk” down to lower shelves and the floor instead of falling. Amazed at the result, he called in his wife, Betty, and the duo started to think hard about what they had in front of them.

Eventually, Richard decided to turn his accidental invention into a novelty toy. Betty scoured the dictionary and found the word “slinky” seemed to be perfect for it. Richard borrowed $500 and began to manufacture the first-ever Slinky toys. At first, they didn’t really sell.

But after the Gimbels Department Store in Philadelphia allowed demonstrations of how to use the toy during the Christmas 1945 shopping season, they sold like mad. More than 400 Slinkys sold within minutes. From there, the rest was history, and the Slinky became an iconic toy for decades after that. And it all started after an American patriot dedicated to helping the war cause accidentally knocked some things off a shelf![2]

8 Brandy

When people hundreds of years ago first accidentally created brandy, they were trying simply to preserve wine to be sent out for long voyages across the open ocean. See, the brandy we know today as its own spirit was originally known as brandywine—which came from the Dutch word “brandewijn” of the same origin. Basically, that translates to “burnt wine.” And that’s exactly what Dutch sailors were trying to do with it when they were hoping to distill and preserve regular old wine in large barrels and casks for very long sea voyages.

The accidental discovery came about (or, at least, it was first documented) at some point in the 1300s. Back then, Dutch wine merchants were having a heck of a time transporting wine all over the globe and preserving it during months-long voyages. They tried their hardest to distill and purify it to the point of preservation, but nothing worked. And then somebody tasted the end result—and loved it!

Over the next several hundred years, the Dutch and other wine merchants began realizing the value of brandy as its own separate spirit. And by the 1400s, many people preferred drinking this new distilled wine simply on its own, and as its own treat.

From there, the Dutch perfected the idea of leaving it in a wooden barrel for a long, long time. Even with distilled wine that wasn’t shipped out to sea, they would fill barrels with the stuff and just let it sit. That made it taste even better. And that (accidentally) birthed the brandy industry that we all know today![3]

7 Pacemaker

The pacemaker was originally developed more than a century ago with the idea of being able to externally regulate a patient’s heartbeat during surgery. Early pacemakers were like a lot of very early technological advancements: awkward and bulky. And they weren’t placed inside a human patient as they are today.

In fact, these devices were external-use pacemakers that had to be tethered to a power source in order to operate full-time. As such, early inventors and tinkerers with the device had the idea of using it as a way to stabilize a patient’s heart during surgery and ensure that the patient could stay alive and stay in a constant state of blood flow through various operations.

By the 1950s, the first portable pacemaker was produced by a Canadian electrical engineer named John Hopps. It was a bulky unit, just like its predecessors. But at least this one could be taken around elsewhere besides the operating room. Even better, it used electricity delivered to the heart through a flexible bipolar catheter that was inserted through a vein into the right atrium of the patient’s heart. That meant it could truly be portable. And even though it was bulky and had to be wheeled around with the person wherever it went, at least it was free-standing and more or less available for everyday use.

Pacemaker technology has come a long way in that regard; they even successfully implant them in dogs nowadays! But way back when, it was meant only to be a device that assists doctors and surgeons with stabilizing a patient during surgery, and nothing more. It’s amazing how much medicine has advanced in the last century, isn’t it?[4]

6 Rubber Bands

The rubber band was first invented (in Europe, at least) back in about 1820 by an Englishman named Thomas Hancock. His bands were not vulcanized, though, and they would soften very quickly on hot days—or get brittle and break easily on cold ones. Thankfully, American Charles Goodyear invented the vulcanization process for rubber in the early 1840s.

Then, the first patent for rubber bands was granted to a London-based industrialist named Stephen Perry in 1845. But even by then, it was a complete afterthought. Perry and engineer Thomas Barnabas Daft, who together were working on various engineering projects that used vulcanized rubber, and they needed something to do with the remnants of their rubber waste. They realized they stringy, stretchy rubber could be cut into thin strips and used to hold things like papers and money. Simple, right?

Well, that’s only half the story. Simultaneously, indigenous Africans working under duress on the rubber plantations of the Congo under Belgian rule would put raw latex between their fingers. The latex was meant to protect their fingers during work, and in time, it became stretchy and stringy. It also was worn around their wrists, too, and even their heads—but as an ornamental decoration.

An enterprising man named Felix Saabye, who was the director of the Canada India Rubber Company at the time, began to play around with these bands. He started to use them to hold together important company documents in large bundles since they were stretchy and mostly durable. Then, he found that dusting the rubber with kaolin allowed it to last much longer. That became his own primitive vulcanization process!

Sadly for Saabye, his rubber band idea died with him, but the afterthought patent granted to Perry and Daft in time became a hugely successful source of income, as people all over the world quickly saw the value in rubber bands to organize papers, money, and other belongings.[5]

5 Champagne

A French Benedictine monk named Dom Pérignon dedicated nearly five decades of his existence to perfecting wine. Born in 1638, he is the one who is credited with (accidentally) creating champagne by adding bubbles to the mixture. But the irony is that he was very desperately trying to get rid of bubbles and perfect traditional wines!

Living in the Champagne region of France, he tinkered with still red wine and was allegedly the first person to ever create that concoction. But he is best known for making the champagne press, which was paramount in reducing the amount of time grape skins came into contact with grape juice. That improved the wine’s clarity and purity, and in turn, it gave the world champagne.

See, in Pérignon’s Champagne region of France, many people had for centuries been jealous of the Frenchmen living in the Burgundy region further south. Burgundy had a much warmer climate, so they could achieve a slate of ripe, full wines with ease from the grapes in their vineyards. The Champenois couldn’t do that, and it ate away at them. Plus, the temperatures would cool in the Champagne region right as the wine they’d produced was fermenting away in tanks.

Well, the cooling temps stopped the fermentation process. And for centuries, the Champenois would bottle the wine when it was unknowingly unfinished. Then, in the spring, when the temperatures warmed back up and CO2 built back up quickly in the bottles, they would push out their corks or explode. Not great!

Well, Dom Pérignon experimented with different stoppers for the bottles and eventually came to use traditional corks that we know today as opposed to fitted wood pieces. He also dropped the use of French glass in the bottles and instead outsourced much stronger English glass. That kept the bottles from exploding.

The re-fermentation months later, as temperatures warmed up again, allowed the liquid within the bottles to become the celebratory drink we know today. So it wasn’t traditional wine like what the people of the Champagne region wanted. And they were never able to truly compete with the Burgundians in that way. But they created their own product that is now world-famous as a drink to be enjoyed during times of celebration![6]

4 Silly Putty

The Slinky wasn’t the only wartime invention that was originally intended to help American forces during World War II but instead became a children’s toy. Silly Putty took quite a similar route! After the Japanese invaded much of southeast and east Asia during their onslaught across the Pacific Theater of World War II, America’s rubber supply was threatened.

Without rubber, the U.S. couldn’t make various items like tires that were needed both for the war effort and for domestic use at home. Alarmed, chemists at General Electric immediately began looking for synthetic rubber substitutes that they could make on the homefront. And that’s when they accidentally turned to Silly Putty.

It was chemist James Wright who first perfected the bizarre concoction. He discovered that the stretchy material completely withstood decay. And not only that, but it bounced much higher than rubber! It wasn’t firm enough to be used as a rubber substitute for things like tires, so its purpose in the war effort was pretty much eliminated. But the weird and wacky goo had a second life coming yet!

For a while, Wright and other chemists used the strange substance as a party trick. They would show friends and guests how weird the substance was while enjoying the post-war world of parties and the like. But the “nutty putty,” as some called it, really didn’t have any commercial use beyond that. That was true until the late 1940s, at least. A marketer named Peter Hodgson got his hands on the stuff and decided it would be wise to sell this “Silly Putty” as part of his catalog meant for families with young children.

He sold the stuff in egg-shaped containers for just a dollar per item. He got lucky in 1950 when the New Yorker put out an article featuring Silly Putty just before the Easter season. Over the next three days, he sold more than 250,000 units of the stuff, all in plastic egg-shaped containers. And with that, Silly Putty was born! Millions upon millions of units of the stuff have moved from factories to consumers ever since.[7]

3 Velcro

A Swiss man named George de Mestral went out for a bird hunting trip with his dog one day in 1941. It was supposed to be a day like any other, and for a while, it was. He and the dog did their thing hunting out in the beautiful Swiss wilderness. And then, when he got home, de Mestral noticed something: There were a handful of burrs stuck to his pants and lining his dog’s coat. The dog was mostly annoyed by them, and so de Mestral moved to shake them off. But they wouldn’t come off so easily!

De Mestral had to then pick them out carefully, one by one, until each one was removed and safely off his poor dog’s fur. Intrigued, de Mestral took the burrs to his microscope to figure out why they were sticking so well to the hair of his canine best friend. When he looked at them closely under the microscope, that’s when he discovered that they had small hooks and loops that attached themselves exceedingly well to both fur and fabric.

Suddenly, de Mestral got an idea: There must be a way to mimic that sticking ability with man-made products that could fasten two things together and keep them intertwined. And so, velcro was born! The Swiss tinkerer called it “velcro” after the French words “velours” (for loop) and “crochet” (for hook).

He played around with the materials and manufacturing technique for a long time, perfecting some of it on his own and handing it off to other engineers and tinkerers to work on further. By 1959, the Velcro Company was born and began producing all kinds of Velcro products. And it’s been a major part of consumer product history ever since![8]

2 Matches

An Englishman named John Walker accidentally discovered matches in 1826—and then didn’t patent the idea as soon as he’d perfected it, losing out on possibly untold riches thanks to his by-chance invention. Walker was a shop owner in Stockton-on-Tees, United Kingdom, who, early in 1826, was trying to scrape off dried chemicals from his hearth. He was using a wooden stick to do it, and as he went about scraping, the stick caught fire.

Amazed at how easily and quickly the stick went up in flames, Walker got an idea. He played around with it for a while. Finally, he perfected the right chemical combination to create what became the very first friction match. Then, on April 7, 1827, he began selling friction matches in his shop. The matches were a hit right from the very start. In fact, they were such a hit that the boxes he sold to customers quickly flew off the shelves and made him some nice money.

However, he didn’t patent the idea. Friends, acquaintances, and even renowned scientist Michael Faraday begged Walker to patent the idea for matches, but he didn’t do it. As a result, other enterprising businessmen around England were able to take his matchstick idea and make their own competing products.

Now, don’t feel too bad for Walker. He was financially successful with his accidentally invented matches. He sold enough of them in such a short time that he was able to retire off the proceeds and live a life of reasonable comfort until he died more than three decades later.

But still, he could have created a matchstick empire! Ah, well. The invention came to him sheerly by accident, so perhaps a personal fortune and a good last few decades of life were more than enough. What it all became was just icing on the cake.[9]

1 Potato Chips

The legend of the invention of potato chips is quite a roller coaster. As the story has been told all throughout history, they were invented by a Black man named George Speck in upstate New York. Born in 1824, Speck grew up to be a talented cook and chef. He was eventually hired by a high-end restaurant in the Saratoga area called Moon’s Lake House.

That restaurant catered to high-income Manhattan families who would come north for the summer. One regular patron of the restaurant was said to be Commodore Cornelius Vanderbilt. He was then one of the richest people on the planet. He was not only very important, but he was also very forgetful—for some reason, legend has it he referred to Speck as “Crum.”

He was also extremely picky. One day, Vanderbilt sent back an order of French friends after he complained that Speck (er, Crum) had cut them too thick. Mad at the complaint, Speck did what any self-respecting chef would do: he sought clever revenge.

He sliced the next batch of french fries into the thinnest possible pieces from a potato and tossed them in the fryer. What came out wasn’t french fries at all, but newfound potato chips that were completely burnt to a crisp. He sent them to Vanderbilt’s table, and to everyone’s surprise, Vanderbilt loved them. And thus, the potato chip was born!

Or was it? The legend is a funny one, but there are a few problems with the timing of the story. For one, Vanderbilt apparently wasn’t in upstate New York during the summer that all that craziness supposedly happened. And for another, other recipes from earlier cookbooks published elsewhere indicate calls to make things suspiciously like potato chips.

Those cookbooks predated Speck’s “invention,” so it’s likely not his at all! Plus, Speck’s own obituary upon his death doesn’t even mention him as the man who invented potato chips. You’d think that if he did do so, it would be front-and-center about the story of his life. He was only first credited with the “invention” in 1983, well over a hundred years after it supposedly happened!

And then things get even weirder still. During her lifetime, Speck’s sister Kate Wicks claimed that she was, in fact, the one who invented potato chips! Her obituary, published in a local newspaper in Saratoga in 1924, read: “A sister of George Crum, Mrs. Catherine Wicks, died at the age of 102 and was the cook at Moon’s Lake House. She first invented and fried the famous Saratoga Chips.” Excuse us!

As it turns out, several periodicals that were published during Wicks’s lifetime in the late 19th century indicated that she accidentally sliced off a sliver of a potato, which inadvertently fell into a hot frying pan. The result was a crispy chip—that Speck tried and absolutely loved—and so the famous food was born. Whatever story you believe to be true, it sounds like it was all made by accident![10]

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