Originally created 10/12/03

Inventions are often accidental in nature

On Monday, Americans will celebrate Christopher Columbus' discovery of the New World in 1492.

Sure, he was looking for Asia. And, yes, according to the history books, he never actually made it to the mainland on that first trip.

But in honor of that momentous occasion, we've taken a look at some popular accidental inventions and discoveries made through the "whoops!" process:

SLINKY: The Slinky Web site at www.slinkytoys.com says Navy engineer Richard James was conducting experiments with tension springs in 1945 when a spring fell off the worktable. When the spring seemed to "walk" across the floor, Mr. James took the metal piece home to his wife, Betty. Mrs. James' visions of Christmases to come sent her to the dictionary looking for a name for the potential toy. She found "slinky," an adjective Webster's defines as "sneaking; stealthy and furtive."

POST-IT NOTES: Serendipity and ingenuity merged to help create the ubiquitous little yellow notes, which were introduced in 1980. The 3M Web site at www.3m.com tells the story of scientist Spence Silver's late-1960s research to improve the company's tape adhesive. What he made was something different. His new adhesive formed into tiny balls that wouldn't dissolve or melt and individually were incredibly sticky, but because they made only intermittent contact, were not very strong. Art Fry, a 3M new-product development researcher, finally found a use for the tape-"lite" when he became frustrated with his hymnal's scrap-paper bookmarks. He realized Dr. Silver's adhesive would make a great stay-put bookmark.

SILLY PUTTY: A call from the government during World War II sent James Wright, a General Electric engineer, on a quest for a synthetic rubber compound to bolster U.S. production, according to the Web site www.sillyputty.com. Mr. Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil, which became bonded. Mr. Wright took the gooey substance out of the test tube and, in a fit of whimsy, tossed it on the floor. The putty promptly bounced back. More than 60 years and millions of egg-shaped cases later, Silly Putty remains a play staple for children and the young-at-heart.

MICROWAVE OVEN: Inventor Percy Spencer was taking a tour of one of his Raytheon Company laboratories in 1945 when he happened to stop in front of a magnetron, which is the power tube that drives a radar. According to the Web site web.mit.edu, when he reached into his pocket he discovered the chocolate bar he'd tucked away had melted. Being a scientist and naturally curious, Mr. Spencer asked for some popcorn kernels and held the bag near the tube, sending popcorn popping all over the lab. The first commercial microwave was the 1600-watt 1161 Radarange and was a whopping 750 pounds and stood 5 feet, 6 inches tall.

IVORY SOAP: The sudsy cleaner had been around just a few months in 1879 when an employee forgot to turn off the soap-making machine before going to lunch. When he returned, he found the liquid had been whipped into a froth, but managers decided to continue with the batch since it contained the same ingredients as the others. Weeks later, the main office began receiving orders for more of the "floating soap." The extra time spent in the mixer had apparently whipped in air, which caused the soap to float. According to the Web site www.ivory.com, the company still adds a small amount of air to the product.

VIAGRA: In a strange twist, a medicine that originally was designed to help people suffering from heart problems, such as angina, was found to have the unexpected side effect of increasing blood flow to the penis. The heart-medicine testing was cast to the wayside as researchers found the side effect of reversing erectile dysfunction a lot more interesting. Ironically, men are now warned against using Viagra if they are taking nitrates for heart problems, as the combination can cause their blood pressure to drop dangerously low.

Reach Erica C. Cline at (706) 828-2946 or erica.cline@augustachronicle.com.


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