How failures gave rise to cookies, stainless steel and superglue
Failure #1 – The Pacemaker
The Pacemaker is well known as a life-saving device, but it it was created as the result of a mistake. The original intention of American engineer, Wilson Greatbatch, was to develop a gadget that would record irregular heartbeats. While doing so, he reached into a box in search of a 10,000- mega-ohm resistor resistor, but accidentally ended up pulling out a 1-mega-ohm resistor.
Although Greatbatch had experienced failure with regards to his attempt to create the device he had planned on, he did notice that the circuit pulsed in such a way that closely modeled the human heart. From here, he was inspired to change the direction of his work, and develop the world’s first implantable pacemaker. This innovation proved to be extremely important, as the previous pacemakers in use were external, about the size of a television, and often caused a patient’s skin to burn badly, because it dealt out considerable jolts of electricity.
Failure #2 – Superglue
In 1942, Dr. Harry Coover was attempting to isolate a clear plastic as a means of making precision gun sights for handheld weapons. Initially, he and his team were working with chemicals called ascyanoacrylates. The team quickly realized that these chemicals polymerized when in contact with moisture, which caused all of their test materials to bond together. Because this was obviously not going to help with their research, Coover decided to scrap the chemicals and move on.
It wasn’t until 6 years later that Coover realized the actual potential of the substance. While working in a chemical plant in Tennessee, he was testing the heat-resistant qualities of cyanoacrylates, and noticed that the chemical adhesives didn’t require any heat or pressure to form a strong bond. From here, superglue was introduced to the world.
Failure #3 – Stainless Steel
Although extremely tough and durable, anything that is made of steel will eventually, with the passage of time, rust and crumble. For years, scientists and metallurgists attempted, in vain, to introduce new elements to steal in order to prevent rusting. The final solution, however, came from the failure of one such metallurgist named Harry Brearly.
In 1912, Brearly set out to come up with a new and improved gun. Because guns are grooved in a spiral pattern, bullets spin, increasing accuracy. Unfortunately, friction between the bullet and the barrel leads to eventual wear. This is why Brearly was hoping to develop a steel alloy that would not erode. After continuously failing at his mission, Brearly’s heap of discarded steel scraps grow larger and larger.
Several months passed, when he noticed that one such “failure” might have some use, after all. This scrap of steel had retained all of its original luster, whereas others had begun to oxidize. The steel sample contained approximately 12% chromium, which reacted with the air’s oxygen and created a thin, protective film. Brearly then noticed that, in addition to resisting rust, the film could restore itself from scratches, and resist stains. Thus, he dubbed his innovation “stainless steel”.
Failure #4 – Post-It Notes
In 1968, a chemist for 3M by the name of Spencer Silver, was supposed to be developing a strong adhesive that would work for the aerospace industry. In fact, Silver mistakenly created a weak adhesive. Although 3M deemed this adhesive “useless”, the chemist was fascinated by the fact that it would stick well, even after several uses. He believed that it could be utilized to develop a sticky surface for a “no tacks required” bulletin board, but 3M rejected his idea, and the adhesive was forgotten.
Five years later, Spencer’s discovery was thought of, once again. Art Fry – another 3M chemist – found himself frustrated by the fact that the paper bookmarks in his choir hymnal kept falling out. He decided that, instead of putting the adhesive on a bulletin board, it could be put on a piece of paper so that it would stick on anything. Thus, Post-Its were born.
Failure #5 – Chocolate Chip Cookies
Perhaps the sweetest failure occurred in 1930, when Ruth Graves Wakefield discovered that she was out of baker’s chocolate for her famous Butter Drop Do cookies. In desperation, she broke up a bar of Nestle’s chocolate into tiny chunks, and mixed them into the batter. She assumed that it would melt in the oven, spread throughout the dough, and create a chocolate cookie. Of course, the chunks only melted a bit, maintaining their shape and offering a creamy texture. People loved them!