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Accidental Discoveries

Thomas Edison is credited with saying, “Just because something doesn’t do what you planned it to do in the first place doesn’t mean it’s useless.” Edison was a forerunner of many creative people who stumbled upon inventions by accident.


Did you know Kleenex tissues were invented for soldiers in World War I as filters for their gas masks?

In that era, people blew their noses on cotton handkerchiefs, not disposable tissues. However, during World War I the Kimberly-Clark company manufactured these disposable tissues not only for lining gas masks, but also for medical use as bandages.

Then the war ended. Warehouses were filled with boxes of unused tissues. Someone in the corporation concocted the idea of marketing them to Hollywood actors and actresses to use with cold cream in removing stage make-up. American women caught on and sales escalated.

Then, those same wives began writing to the Kimberly-Clark Corporation, complaining that their husbands were blowing their noses on their “cold cream kerchiefs.”

About that time someone invented a pop-up tissue box, and Kimberly-Clark began marketing their former gas mask liners to a grateful American public. The next time you sneeze, remember that your great grandpa may have survived because of the very thing you threw away today.



Another useful invention, Post-It Notes, was created by accident. A 3M company engineer, Spencer Silver, was trying to invent a strong adhesive for building planes. His invention flopped; it was instead very weak. Silver then thought about using it to spray on bulletin boards, so that people could stick papers to them without tacks or staples. But 3M said there was little money to be made in annual sales of bulletin boards.

Enter chemical engineer Art Fry and his church choir. Fry grew tired of slips of paper sliding out of his hymnbook when he turned the pages. He recalled Silver’s sticky invention, but convinced 3M that they had it backwards: they should attach the sticky adhesive to the back of paper instead.

The idea caught on, and the rest is history.



Did you know it came from the military also?

During World War II, the army needed a waterproof tape which soldiers could use to keep their ammunition cases dry. So, originally the tape was army green. No one is sure why it was originally called “Duck Tape” unless it was because it shed water like a duck.

After using the new tape on ammunition cases, soldiers noticed it was good for holding things together. They used it to repair guns and jeeps and even aircraft. Medical personnel used it for closing wounds.

The war ended, and soldiers brought home their supplies. Then, a bright entrepreneur realized it was good for holding together heating and air conditioning ducts. He changed the color to silver to match the ducts.

And…one for the record: Missourians at a Walmart store in Springfield buy more duct tape per person than any place on earth, earning the distinction of Duct Tape Capital of the World.



That amazing, good-smelling dough you tried to eat in kindergarten began as putty for cleaning wallpaper. After WW II, washable vinyl wallpaper was invented, and inventor Noah McVicker’s putty appeared to be destined for distinction.

Fate intervened, however, in the form of a phone call to Noah’s nephew, Joseph McVicker. Joseph’s sister-in-law Kay, was a nursery school teacher and heard that people were using Uncle Noah’s cleaning putty in art projects. Regular modeling clay was too hard for small children to handle. Could Joseph and Uncle Noah create a children’s toy putty?

They could and they did. Joseph named it Play-Doh and the first off-white batches sold in one-and-a-half pound cans.

Over 700 million pounds of Play-Doh have been sold. There is even a National Play-Doh Day on September 18, and the Demeter Fragrance Library created a Play-Doh scented perfume which smells just like the real thing.

The take-away in all this? Failing really isn’t failure; it’s just opportunity ratcheted up a few notches. When someone asked Thomas Edison why he failed so many times in his inventions, he quipped, “I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”

How about you? Have you ever discovered something by accident? Join the discussion below.

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