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Leader Resource 1: Oops!... Wow! Explanations

Share these true stories of how mistakes led people to invent these useful, common items.

Silly Putty

From the Computer Patent Annuities website:

The invention of Silly Putty was a side effect of America 's attempts to cope with the rubber shortage brought about the Japanese capture of producer-nations during World War Two. In 1943, James Wright, a Scottish engineer, was working at General Electric's laboratory in New Haven, Connecticut , to find a viable method of producing synthetic rubber. One day he mixed some silicon oil and boric acid in a test tube. When he removed the gooey substance that formed inside, Wright threw a lump to the floor and found that it bounced back up again. After circulating among chemists for a few years, Silly Putty was launched as a children's novelty item in 1949. Since then, over 200 million plastic eggs-full of the stuff have been sold worldwide.

From the InventorSpot website:

The invention of Silly Putty started out scientifically. During World War II, the United States government was in dire need of a substitute for rubber to use on such things as boots and airplane tires. They asked their engineers to experiment with silicone to find this synthetic rubber. In 1944, a General Electric engineer named James Wright added boric acid to silicone oil and ended up inventing what became Silly Putty. However, before it was Silly Putty, it was nothing. Though it was elastic and bounced, it wasn't sufficient as a rubber substitute and was put aside. It wasn't until 1949 that Silly Putty realized its true potential. It had attracted the attention of a toy store owner named Ruth Fallgatter. She teamed up with a marketing consultant named Peter Hodgson to find a creative use for the putty. It was first marketed to adults and then became a toy for children. The rest is history. Despite the rationing of silicone brought on by the Korean War, Silly Putty persevered and is now one of the world's most popular toys.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Adapted from the website, What's Cooking America , copyright Linda Stradley.

The first chocolate chip cookies were invented in 1937 by Ruth Graves Wakefield (1905—1977), of Whitman, Massachusetts, who ran the Toll House Restaurant. The Toll House Restaurant site was once a real toll house built in 1709, where stagecoach passengers ate a meal while horses were changed and a toll was taken for use of the highway between Boston and New Bedford , a prosperous whaling town.

One of Ruth's favorite recipes was an old recipe for "Butter Drop Do" cookies that dated back to colonial times. The recipe called for the use of baker's chocolate. One day Ruth found herself without the needed ingredient. Having a bar of semisweet chocolate on hand, she chopped it into pieces and stirred the chunks of chocolate into the dough. She assumed the chocolate would melt and spread throughout each cookie. Instead the chocolate bits held their shape and created a sensation. She called her new creation the Toll House Crunch Cookies. The Toll House Crunch Cookies became very popular with guests at the inn, and soon her recipe was published in a Boston newspaper, as well as other papers in the New England area. This cookie became known nationally when Betty Crocker used it in her radio series, "Famous Foods from Famous Eating Places."

Ruth approached the Nestlé Company. They agreed Nestlé would print what would become the Toll House Cookie recipe on the wrapper of the Semi-Sweet Chocolate Bar. The company developed a scored semisweet chocolate bar with a small cutting implement so making the chocolate chunks would be easier. According to the story, part of this agreement included supplying Ruth with all of the chocolate she could use to make her delicious cookies for the rest of her life. Then, in 1939, Nestlé began offering Nestlé Toll House Real Semi-Sweet Chocolate Morsels.

Ruth sold all legal rights to the use of the Toll House trademark to Nestlé.  On August 25, 1983, the Nestlé Company lost its exclusive right to the trademark in federal court. Toll house is now a descriptive term for a cookie.

Velcro

From WikiAnswers and enotes.com .

George de Mestral, a Swiss amateur mountaineer and inventor (1908—1990), decided to take his dog for a nature hike one lovely summer day in 1948. They both returned covered with burrs. De Mestral inspected one of the burrs under his microscope and was inspired to use the same mechanism for a fastener. His idea met with resistance and even laughter, but the inventor "stuck" by his invention. Together with a weaver from a textile plant in France , de Mestral perfected his hook and loop fastener. By trial and error, he realized that nylon, when processed under infrared light, formed tough hooks for the burr side of the fastener. This finished the design, patented in 1955. The inventor formed Velcro Industries to manufacture his invention. Not long afterward, De Mestral was selling over sixty million yards of Velcro per year. Today it is a multi-million dollar industry.

The name, "velcro," combines two French words, velours ("velvet") and crochet ("small hook"). A velcro fastener comprises two strips made of nylon; one strip is dense with thousands of tiny hooks and the other has tiny loops for the hooks to catch.

Sticky Notes/Post-its 

From About.com .

Post-it notes may have been a God-send... literally. In the early 1970s, Art Fry was in search of a bookmark for his church hymnal that would neither fall out nor damage the hymnal. Fry noticed that a colleague at 3M, Dr. Spencer Silver, had developed an adhesive that was strong enough to stick to surfaces, but left no residue after removal and could be repositioned. Fry took some of Dr. Silver's adhesive and applied it along the edge of a piece of paper. His church hymnal problem was solved!

Fry soon realized that his "bookmark" had other potential functions when he used it to leave a note on a work file, and co-workers kept dropping by, seeking "bookmarks" for their offices. This "bookmark" was a new way to communicate and to organize. 3M Corporation crafted the name Post-it note for Fry's bookmarks and began production in the late '70s for commercial use.

In 1977, test-markets failed to show consumer interest. However, in 1979 3M implemented a massive consumer sampling strategy, and the Post-it note took off. Today, we see Post-it notes peppered across files, computers, desks, and doors in offices and homes throughout the country. From a church hymnal bookmark to an office and home essential, the Post-it note has colored the way we work.

A Slinky

From enotes.com .

The Slinky was invented by Philadelphia engineer Richard T. James in the mid-1940s. The Slinky is a toy made of a steel or plastic coil that tumbles smoothly down a flight of stairs.

It wasn't James's intention to create a toy. The Slinky was actually the result of a failed attempt to produce an anti-vibration device for ship instruments—something that would absorb the shock of waves. When James accidentally knocked one of his steel spirals off a shelf, he saw it literally crawl, coil by coil, to a lower shelf, onto a stack of books, down to the tabletop, and finally come to rest, upright, on the floor.

James' wife, Betty, saw its potential as a toy and named it "slinky." Betty and Richard James founded James Industries in 1948 to market the toy Slinky.

A Floating Bar of Ivory Soap

From About.com: Inventors .

A soap maker at the Procter and Gamble company had no idea a new innovation was about to surface when he went to lunch one day in 1879. He forgot to turn off the soap mixer, and more than the usual amount of air was whipped into the batch of pure white soap that the company sold under the name The White Soap. Fearing he would get in trouble, the soap maker kept the mistake a secret and packaged and shipped the air-filled soap to customers around the country. Soon customers were asking for more "soap that floats." When company officials found out what happened, they turned it into one of the company's most successful products, Ivory Soap.

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Last updated on Thursday, October 27, 2011.

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