Author Archives: Longjump

Whoops! The 10 Greatest (Accidental) Inventions of All Time

“Everything comes to him who hustles while he waits,” Thomas Edison once said. But is hustling all it takes? Is progress always deliberate? Sometimes genius arrives not by choice—but by chance. Below are our ten favorite serendipitous innovations.

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1. The Microwave – Percy L. Spencer
Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon after his WWI stint in the Navy, was known as an electronics genius. In 1945, Spencer was fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron—used in the guts of radar arrays—when he felt a strange sensation in his pants. A sizzling, even. Spencer paused and found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had started to melt. Figuring that the microwave radiation of the magnetron was to blame (or to credit, as it would turn out), Spencer immediately set out to realize the culinary potential at work. The end result was the microwave oven—savior of eager snackers and single dudes worldwide.

image2. Saccharin – Ira Remsen, Constantin Fahlberg

In 1879, Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, at work in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, paused to eat. Fahlberg had neglected to wash his hands before the meal—which usually leads to a quick death for most chemists, but led to him noticing an oddly sweet flavor during his meal. Artificial sweetener! The duo published their findings together, but it was only Fahlberg’s name that made it onto the (incredibly lucrative) patent, now found in pink packets at tables everywhere. That is to say, Remsen got screwed—he later remarked, “Fahlberg is a scoundrel. It nauseates me to hear my name mentioned in the same breath with him.”

image3. Slinky – Richard James

In 1943, Navy engineer Richard James was trying to figure out how to use springs to keep the sensitive instruments aboard ships from rocking themselves to death, when he knocked one of his prototypes over. Instead of crashing to the floor, it gracefully sprang downward, and then righted itself. So pointless—so nimble—so slinky. The spring became a goofy toy of many childhoods—that is before every kid inevitably gets theirs all twisted up and ruins it. 300 million sold worldwide!

image4. Play-Doh – Kutol Products

Before being found ground into the rugs of child-rearing homes everywhere, Play-Doh was ironically created to be a cleaning product. The paste was first marketed as a treatment for filthy wallpaper—before the company that produced it began to go down the tubes. The discovery that saved Kutol Products—headed for bankruptcy—wasn’t that their wall cleaner worked particularly well, but that schoolchildren were beginning to use it to create Christmas ornaments as arts and crafts projects. By removing the compound’s cleanser and adding colors and a fresh scent, Kutol spun their wallpaper saver into one of the most iconic toys of all time—and brought mega-success to a company headed for destruction. Sometimes, you don’t even know how brilliant you are until someone notices for you.

image5. Super Glue – Harry Coover

In what have been a very messy moment of discovery in 1942, Dr. Harry Coover of Eastman-Kodak Laboratories found that a substance he created—cyanoacrylate—was a miserable failure. It was not, to his dismay, at all suited for a new precision gun sight as he had hoped—it infuriatingly stuck to everything it touched. So it was forgotten. Six years later, while overseeing an experimental new design for airplane canopies, Coover found himself stuck in the same gooey mess with a familiar foe—cyanacrylate was proving useless as ever. But this time, Coover observed that the stuff formed an incredibly strong bond without needing heat. Coover and his team tinkered with sticking various objects in their lab together, and realized they had finally stumbled upon a use for the maddening goop. Coover slapped a patent on his discovery, and in 1958, a full 16 years after he first got stuck, cyanoacrylate was being sold on shelves.

image6. Teflon – Roy Plunkett

The next time you make a frustration-free omelette, thank chemist Roy Plunkett, who experienced immense frustration while inadvertently inventing Teflon in 1938. Plunkett had hoped to create a new variety of chlorofluorocarbons (better known as universally-despised CFCs), when he came back to check on his experiment in a refrigeration chamber. When he inspected a canister that was supposed to be full of gas, he found that it appeared to have vanished—leaving behind only a few white flakes. Plunkett was intrigued by these mysterious chemical bits, and began at once to experiment with their properties. The new substance proved to be a fantastic lubricant with an extremely high melting point—perfect at first for military gear, and now the stuff found finely applied across your non-stick cookware.

image7. Bakelite – Leo Baekeland

In 1907, shellac was commonly used to insulate the innards of early electronics—think radios and telephones. This was fine, aside from the fact that shellac is made from Asian beetle poop, and not exactly the cheapest or easiest way to insulate a wire. What Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland found in instead was—get ready—polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, the world’s first synthetic plastic, commonly known as Bakelite. This pioneering plastic was moldable into virtually any shape, in any color, and could hold its form against high temperatures and daily wear—making it a star among manufacturers, jewelers, and industrial designers.

image8. Pacemaker – Wilson Greatbatch

An assistant professor at the University of Buffalo thought he had ruined his project. Instead of picking a 10,000-ohm resistor out of a box to use on a heart-recording prototype, Wilson Greatbatch took the 1-megaohm variety. The resulting circuit produced a signal that sounded for 1.8 milliseconds, and then paused for a second—a dead ringer for the human heart. Greatbatch realized the precise current could regulate a pulse, overriding the imperfect heartbeat of the ill. Before this point, pacemakers were television-sized, cumbersome things that were temporarily attached to patients from the outside. But now the effect could be achieved with a small circuit, perfect to tuck into someone’s chest.

image9. Velcro – George de Mestral

A dog invented velcro.
Alright, that’s something of an exaggeration, but a dog did play an instrumental role. Swiss engineer George de Mestral was out for a hunting trip with his pooch, and noticed the annoying tendency of burrs to stick to its fur (and his socks). Later, looking under a microscope, Mestral observed the tiny “hooks” that stuck burrs to fabrics and furs. Mestral experimented for years with a variety of textiles before arriving at the newly invented nylon—though it wasn’t until two decades later that NASA’s fondness for velcro popularized the tech.

image10. X-Rays – Wilhelm Roentgen

Okay, yes, x-rays are a phenomenon of the natural world, and thus can’t be created. Butsshhh! The story of their discovery is a fascinating one of incredible chance. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was performing a routine experiment involving cathode rays, when he noticed that a piece of fluorescent cardboard was lighting up from across the room. A thick screen had been placed between his cathode emitter and the radiated cardboard, proving that particles of light were passing through solid objects. Amazed, Roentgen quickly found that brilliant images could be produced with this incredible radiation—the first of their kind being a skeletal image of his wife’s hand.

What kind of innovator are you?

For most organisations, the quest for growth via new product development starts with some kind of situation analysis. It is aimed at establishing the starting position from which to build a pipeline of relevant new products to ‘wow’ their consumers. This situation analysis usually includes an internal audit of capabilities & brands, plus an external consumer and market audit. Rarely however, does an organisation ask the challenging questions around its innovation vision. Establishing your innovation vision, including what kind of innovator the organisation wants to be, has the potential to drive sustainable differentiation and a fresh perspective on the competitive challenge.

If we start with a traditional situation analysis, we might look at trends in new products (ie what others are already doing in the market), we might research consumer needs/wants (at least what they can articulate), and we might conduct an audit of associated categories to help understand product interactions and to spark new ideas. From an internal perspective, we might look at competencies and capabilities, plus our brands and portfolios.
All of these tools and techniques are good and beneficial, however they miss one of the few opportunities for ‘pure differentiation’. Pure differentiation is borne out of sustainable growth levers; those weapons we have in our innovation armoury that are less (or not at all) able to be copied by competitors. They are more ownable and defensible, and hence, more sustainable as a tool for growth.

Sustainable growth levers are few.
Brands are one weapon that no one can truly copy. Positioned and managed well, a brand can bring value in terms of higher prices, more frequent or less fickle consumption, and even higher shareholder value. Way back in 1900, John Stuart, Chairman of Quaker said: “If this business were split up, I would give you the land and bricks and mortar, and I would take the brands and trade marks, and I would fare better than you.”
It is said that 51% of Coca Cola’s market capitalisation is in its brands. Similarly, the Disney brand sits around 68%, and McDonalds 71%. The more consistent and ubiquitous your brand is, the less easily a competitor can copy it, and the more sustainable it is as a growth lever.
The other sustainable growth lever is an organisation’s innovation vision, and in particular, what kind of innovator it wants to be. If this ‘stake in the ground’ is established, an organisation can differentiate itself by the way it does innovation, as well as what it does.
For example, an organisation’s history, budgets, processes and culture will all be critical in determining its capability, or its appetite for ‘first in market’ innovation. This approach to innovation can be too resource heavy for a smaller, leaner or slower organisation, which may be better suited to one of the other quadrants. Similarly, taking a creative approach to existing technologies will require a different weighting of skills within the organisation compared to a first in market approach.
Strategic innovation requires careful and thoughtful planning, and setting up a vision for innovation that sits between organisational mission/vision and new product pipelines.

Olympics – Losing relevance for brands

The Olympic Games have always been about the journey. The thrill of seeing new competitors coming through the ranks fighting to topple the old heroes, the anticipation of the trials to see who will make it through, the pride of family and friends who know the pain and hardship that went into the journey, and of course the breath-holding to see how they perform on the day versus other hungry competitors. This year a new elitist vibe seems to have emerged. Not only has the gold medal become the only goal (at least in media circles), with silver and bronze taking on almost a ‘loser’ stance, but some sports, it seems, are seen as second rate, if they are not the highly sponsored/publicised sports.

Aussie Silver Medallist Mitchell Watt was reportedly taken aback when his post-event interview began with the words “that’s disappointing”. He didn’t think so – he’d just come second in the entire competing world in the longjump. He was ecstatic!

Ian Thorpe, commentating for the BBC during the London Games was told by Harry Wallop of The [London] Telegraph that we (Australia) had just won Gold, and after asking Harry what event it was in, Harry replied “Oh, some kayak or canoe thing”. Quite rightly, Ian Thorpe responded with the plea “Don’t say it like that!….some kayaker or canoer has trained their whole life for this moment” (The Sun Herald Aug 12, 2012).

This elitist vibe is reinforced by ever tightener sponsorship guidelines, aimed at preventing non-sponsoring brands from ambushing the sponsors’ airspace. As a major sponsor, this of course makes a lot of sense. This year Adidas reportedly paid $62mill to be an Olympic sponsor, a figure way out of the league of most brands and companies, many of which partnered athletes through the sweat and tears of the 4 year journey to get there. Yet at that price, the Games are only for the elite brands, and (if a gold medal is the only kudos) only relevant for the most elite in a handful of sports.

But the Games must continue to be about more than just the elite, or it risks losing its relevance and interest. We all love the big win, no doubt about it, but what inspires people all around the world is the individual stories of overcoming challenges to get there. This is what inspires entire nations to participate. This is what provides hope to young kids with a dream of one day competing at that level. This is what creates role models and provides the important link between success and the everyman, and this is what drives sponsorship.

According to various press reports, Nike’s ambush campaign was a real winner this year, not only because they managed to get around the tighter sponsorship guidelines, but also because they effectively bridged the gap between the elite gold medallists and the rest of us who just like to compete. Through their sponsorship of several US committees and sporting federations (and hence, athletes), and their ubiquitous supply of footwear across almost every sport, Nike’s presence was still obvious. They also brought personality and realness to an event that could be at risk of being tarred with the ‘slick marketing brush’ of major sponsors, through their social media ad campaign featuring unknown athletes from towns and villages called London all around the world.

On 13th Aug (2012) B&T published an article which questioned the future of sponsorship deals for medal-less athletes. If a sponsor believes there is a great connection between their brand values and those of an athlete, then surely those values don’t change when the athlete wins silver instead of gold, or if they win no medal at all. The athlete has still performed at the elite level (hopefully with personal and national pride), and has possibly been on a journey more real to any of us than the athlete who won gold. The real sponsorship benefit is realised when brand values, sponsored athlete’s values, and the consumer’s own values collide. The collision of these value sets is what connects brands to people, and ultimately, to shopper behaviour.

Long live the Olympics and the celebration of the journey!