Sometimes Lady Luck delivers the invention but not the fortune that should go with it. One day in 1839, a failed hardware salesman was tinkering at his boardinghouse in Woburn, Massachusetts. He’d been hauled off to debtor’s prison so often that he called it his “hotel.” Even there, he kept doing experiments, doggedly trying to make a useful material out of a substance from Brazil called rubber. People bought it for erasing—“rubbing” out mistakes. Because it became brittle in the cold and melted in high heat, that was about all it was good for. The amateur inventor tried mixing it with numerous chemicals all without success, until that day in Woburn when he blended rubber with sulfur—and happened to drop the mixture onto a hot stove. After he cleaned it up, he realized that the rubber had suddenly become more solid, yet was still flexible.
Charles Goodyear had vulcanized rubber, a process that gives it useful properties, such as strength, elasticity and stability. (Today it is used in everything from automobile tires to golf balls.) But that practical discovery did little to help Goodyear himself. His many patents were regularly violated; when he died in 1860, he was more than $200,000 in debt.
In one common scenario, inventors are hard at work trying to make one thing when accident intervenes to create something else. The first practical synthetic dye was “invented” when an 18-year-old student in London was trying to synthesize an antimalarial drug; the material that led to throwaway tissues was first intended as a filter for gas masks.
In the late 1960s, 3M Company researcher Spence Silver was trying to create a superglue but ended up with the opposite—a glue that wouldn’t dry, wouldn’t melt and hardly stuck to anything. It could just barely hold two pieces of paper together. What the devil could he use the stuff for? Silver never did come up with a good answer, but five years later a fellow employee, Art Fry, began using the glue on small scraps of paper, making bookmarks for his church hymnal. It took another eight years before “Post-it” sticky notepaper became an overnight sensation.
Another everyday accessory we all take for granted, Teflon, has been called “the greatest accidental invention of the century.” In 1938, a 27-year-old chemist, Dr. Roy Plunkett, was working with technician Jack Rebok at Dupont’s Jackson Laboratory in Deepwater Point, New Jersey. Plunkett was trying to create a new kind of refrigerant by mixing a gas called tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) with hydrochloric acid, but one April morning something went wrong.