What happens when cooked wheat sits too long?
Or when the movie camera jams?
When you run out of ice cream cups or baker’s chocolate for your recipe?
When your science experiment turns out the opposite of what you expected?
Or when your cleaning product becomes obsolete?
Sometimes these mistakes can turn into a fine bit of Serendipity.
Serendipity is a favorite word of mine. If you’re unfamiliar with it, Serendipity refers to unexpected good fortune. A pleasant surprise. A bonus you weren’t even looking for.
And today, it’s about seeing the value in your mistakes. Not just turning them into life lessons of perseverance. That’s the intangible good. But sometimes we reap the benefit of inventing something new or discovering a new use for the old.
Guest Laura Fesser takes advantage of artistic mistakes and uses them for future projects.
But not only artists have the corner on that market. Chefs, doctors, engineers, and scientists have discovered by accident new toys, food, and practical helps–things that later changed the world.
• Slinky. In 1943, mechanical engineer Richard James was trying to devise springs to stabilize ship equipment at sea. When he accidentally bumped some on a shelf, the springs “walked” instead of fell.
• Silly Putty. During WW II, people donated boots, tires, and anything rubber to the war cause, but more was needed. So GE engineer James Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil to create a rubber substitute. It stretched and bounced more than rubber, but didn’t have the right properties to replace it.
• Play-doh. Noah and Joseph McVicker created a substance for rubbing soot off wallpaper, but when natural gas replaced coal for heating homes, nobody needed it. However, their sister used it in the classroom as modeling dough.
• Microwave ovens. In the 1940s, engineer Percy Spencer was experimenting with magnetron vacuum tubes for powering radar equipment. He noticed that chocolate bars started melting in his pockets while at work—because of the microwaves. Then he tried popping corn . . .
• Ice cream cones. We all know necessity is the mother of invention. This couldn’t be more true than at the 1904 St. Louis World’s Fair when ice cream vendors ran out of paper cups. Since nobody wanted waffle pastries on such hot days, the waffle vendor donated his thin rolled-up waffles to the cause.
• Potato chips. This invention wasn’t so much of an accident as it was an insult. In 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, a customer complained about hotel chef George Crum’s soggy fried potatoes and demanded a new batch. Furious, George sliced the potatoes even thinner, cooked them till breakable, and served those. But instead of getting angry, the diner ordered more. “Saratoga Chips” were a hit.
• Chocolate chip cookies. In 1930, hostess Ruth Graves Wakefield was in a quandary when she ran out of baker’s chocolate for her Butter Drop Do cookies. Instead, she broke a bar of Nestle’s semisweet chocolate into chunks and threw it in the batter, expecting them to melt and seep into the dough while baking. Well, they didn’t. And that’s a good thing.
• Kellogg’s Corn Flakes. In Battle Creek, Michigan in 1894, brothers John Harvey and Will Keith Kellogg left their cooked wheat sitting too long. Though it was stale, they still tried to press it through rollers to create dough—and ended up with flakes. After toasting the flakes, the brothers served bowlfuls to their patients, who wanted more. Later on, they did the same thing with corn.
• Popsicles. In 1905, Frank Epperson left his fruit-flavored soda drink outside all night, with the stirring stick still in it. It froze. Seventeen years later, he started serving these frozen “lollipops” in various venues, with different fruit flavors. He called them Eppsicles at first. I’m glad he changed the name.
• Matches. In 1826, pharmacist John Walker accidentally ignited a dried lump on the end of a mixing stick when he was stirring a pot of chemicals.
• Post-it notes. Working for the aerospace industry, chemist Spencer Silver was trying to develop a strong adhesive. Instead, he ended up with a weak one. Useless, right? So he turned it into a sticky surface to mount as bulletin boards. People could attach notes without tacks. But no one was interested. Five years later, fellow chemist and choir singer, Mr. Art Fry, got frustrated with bookmarks that kept slipping out of his hymnal. He decided to use this same adhesive on paper and used them as bookmarks.
Incidentally, I don’t know how I’d live without Post-it notes, or how I ever survived without them. I wish I’d bought stock in them early on. I use so many that it has turned into a family joke.
Then there’s the color mauve from aniline purple dye (yes, this synthetic color was invented), penicillin, plastic, x- rays, safety glass, Vulcanized rubber, Velcro, Super Glue, Teflon, and Saccharine. All a result of mistakes.
All things we can’t imagine being without today.
Sometimes art forms are developed in the same way.
In the late 1800s in Paris, Georges Méliès accidentally discovered stop-motion photography when his moving picture camera jammed. He found he could create illusions with film, such as double exposures, time-lapse photography, multiple exposures, split screens, scene dissolves, and hand-painted colorization.
Serendipity, right? Where would we be without the film industry?
He made over 500 short films for Paris audiences. One of those was the first science fiction film blockbuster, A Trip to the Moon (1902).
Méliès became the film pioneer of special effects. He and his films were popular for years. Unfortunately, much later, he was destitute. The government even melted down his films for silver for the war effort.
Yikes! What is worse than having your art destroyed as useless? And for war!
To make a living, Méliès ended up selling toys in a Paris railway station, but was rediscovered later . . .
Fast forward a century to the incomparable The Invention of Hugo Cabret, by author-illustrator Brian Selznick. This story harkens back to Méliès’ life and the film Trip to the Moon. The tale’s setting begins in the railway station where an old, grumpy toy seller works. The boy Hugo lives there secretly with a broken automaton from a burnt-down museum. The two meet . . .
The 533-page book has 284 pictures, making it a combination of novel, picture book, graphic novel, and flip book. It won the 2008 Caldecott Medal for best picture book—the first novel ever to do so.
My sons and I loved reading it together when they were ages 10 and 12.
Then, in 2011, Martin Scorsese made a movie of it. A wonderful tribute to Georges Méliès, the man who pioneered special effects. All of which started by accident from a jammed movie camera.
So take heart when you make mistakes, when things don’t go as planned. A new adventure might await you around the corner.
When have you discovered something by mistake? Or made accidental art?
I’d love to hear from you!
P.S. Next time: meet Lisa Doyle whose difficult childhood was the impetus for bringing beauty to the world.