When Mistakes Make a Profit: History’s Best Business Accidents
Companies generally aren’t a fan of costly mistakes, but sometimes an accident can actually make money — lots of it — or even change the world. For centuries, the “oops" moment has resulted in the creation of life-saving medicine, cutting-edge technology, iconic foods and beverages, essential household and office supplies, and really fun toys.
So, grab a bag of potato chips, a Coke and some Post-its (yep, all happy accidents), and let’s take a look at some of the most profitable and life-changing blunders in business history.
30. Chocolate Chip Cookie
Year business accident occurred: 1930
Company involved: Nestle
Whether you’re five or 75, nothing beats a freshly baked chocolate chip cookie. This sweet treat was first created by Ruth Graves Wakefield, co-owner of The Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, who was about to make chocolate cookies for her guests when she discovered she was out of baker’s chocolate. Improvising, she used Nestle’s chocolate, which didn’t spread as evenly as she’d hoped, but the gooey cookie was a hit nonetheless.
Soon, companies like Nestle (who she allowed the use of her recipe), Nabisco, Mrs. Fields and Famous Amos wanted a piece of the chocolate chip cookie business. Today, over 7 billion are eaten in the U.S. every year!
29. Vulcanized Rubber
Year business accident occurred: 1839
Company involved: Goodyear
Unless you’re driving your car Flintstone-style, you’re reaping the reward of this creation. In the early 19th century, Charles Goodyear set out to make natural rubber more resistant to extreme cold and heat. He spent five years trying to perfect a formula, but his big moment didn’t come until he inadvertently dropped a piece of rubber on a hot stove.
The result, vulcanized rubber, is now commonly used in automobile tires, shoe soles and hockey pucks.
Year business accident occurred: 1879
Company involved: Cumberland Packing Corp
If you prefer sweetening your coffee over with a little pink packet, then you’ll appreciate this happy accident from the late 19th century. As the story goes, two scientists, Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, stopped working to eat lunch when Fahlberg noticed that his food tasted oddly sweet. Turns out he’d forgotten to wash his hands and was tasting the chemical on his skin. Good thing it wasn’t toxic!
Though this may seem like a whimsical story, Falhlberg wasn’t so sweet. Only his name appeared on the patent, so we guess you can say this wasn’t an equal partnership. The product, known as saccharin, was sold in packets and became a widely used ingredient in soft drinks, cakes, candy and more.
Year business accident occurred: 1956
Company involved: 3M
Anyone who’s had pets or is prone to spills is grateful for this product, which was accidentally invented by chemist Patsy Sherman. While attempting to create a new version of rubber that could be used with jet fuel without deteriorating, she spilled her experimental mixture on a colleague’s white shoe. Oops!
On the bright side, the affected area seemed to repel dirt and liquids and maintain its shine. 3M released the product as Scotchgard, and it became one of the company’s biggest sellers.
26. Potato Chips
Year business accident occurred: 1853
Companies involved: Moon Lake House, Lays, Ruffles, Pringles and more
Think about how lonely sandwiches would feel without the invention of potato chips. The first batch was made by George Crum (yes, that’s actually his name), a chef at the Moon Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York. Apparently, a finicky customer wasn’t a fan of the way Crum cooked his french fries, complaining that they were too thick and not crispy enough. Enraged, the chef sliced the potatoes super thin and fried them until they crunched.
Thankfully, the customer loved them (he couldn’t eat just one, either), paving the way for potato chips to take their place as the perfect sandwich companion and become a billion-dollar industry.
Year business accident occurred: 1957
Company involved: Velcro Companies
We’ve credited a lot of clever human inventors on this list, but now it’s time to give a dog its due. Swiss engineer George de Mestral was walking in the mountains with his Irish setter when the pooch brushed up against a bush and became covered in burrs. Miffed, de Mestral took a few samples back to his lab and discovered that they contained thousands of fang-like hooks, which explained how they could attach themselves to his dog so easily.
The engineer went from being annoyed to seeing dollar signs and spent the next decade creating a fabric that replicated the burrs. Named Velcro, it would be used in sneakers, jackets, wallets and other products.
Year business accident occurred: 1946
Company involved: Nutella
In the middle of the 20th century, cocoa beans in Italy were expensive and hard to get, so pastry chef Pietro Ferrero filled in his chocolate desserts with hazelnuts. One hot summer day, a batch of his chocolate and hazelnut confection melted into goop — a deliciously creamy goop, that is.
Initially called Supercrema, then rebranded as Nutella, people went, well, nuts, over it. Pietro made billions as Nutella became a global phenomenon, and it’s now estimated that a jar is sold every 2.5 seconds around the world. A sweet spread, indeed!
Year business accident occurred: 1996
Company involved: Pfizer
Believe it or not, Viagra was supposed to be used as a treatment for heart issues such as angina. Though the drug failed in its clinical trials, male participants reported a rather unusual side effect (and several didn’t want to give the pills back), so Pfizer quickly repackaged it for men who needed help — well, you know.
Demand was so high that Viagra became one of the fastest-selling drugs of all time.
22. Safety Glass
Year business accident occurred: 1903
Company involved: Triplex Safety Glass
Sometimes, you have to try and break something to make a great discovery. Granted, scientist Edward Benedictus didn’t mean to knock over a glass flask while working in his lab, and to his amazement, the glass survived with just a slight crack. Intrigued, Benedictus learned that the flask was coated with cellulose nitrate, a liquid plastic that prevented it from shattering.
Through a series of further experiments, he modified the plastic and developed safety glass that would be widely used in automobiles. Thanks to his happy accident, car windshields don’t shatter into a million little pieces when drivers get into accidents of their own.
Year business accident occurred: 16th century
Company involved: Spirit purveyors throughout Europe and the U.S.
Dating back to the 16th century, this spirited accident came from a Dutch shipmaster who was looking for an easier way to transport wine. His idea was to use heat to concentrate the liquid, then add water when it arrived at its destination, but it didn’t go as planned.
The result was basically burnt wine (called brandwijn in Dutch). However, it was surprisingly tasty. Brandy, as it was more commonly called, became an international sensation. Fun fact: The biggest brandy-drinking state is Wisconsin. Burnt wine and cheese, anyone?
20. Running Shoes
Year business accident occurred: 1971
Company involved: NASA, Nike
Did you know thatNASA’s work goes beyond the stars and the sky? In fact, the agency was responsible for something that firmly plants our feet on the ground. In the early 1970s, NASA engineers were attempting to make astronaut helmets more shock absorbent when they came up with a new process for molding rubber that included melted plastic and compressed air. The result was air bubbles that could absorb shock and keep their shape.
The design was great for helmets, but astronaut Frank Rudy came out with another use for them … one that Nike would soon implement to advance running shoes and that would keep the company running profits for years to come.
19. Ice Cream Cones
Year business accident occurred: 1904
Company involved: Food vendors Arnold Fornachou and Ernest Hamwi
Cup versus cone may be a hotly contested ice cream debate, but before the start of the 20th century, there wasn’t a choice. Ice cream vendors served the frozen treat in paper, glass and metal. Some offered “penny licks” in which you’d get a scoop of ice cream in a glass, lick out all the good stuff and hand it back to the vendor, who’d then give it to the next customer. Not exactly the most sanitary!
Thankfully, the 1904 World’s Fair spawned a better way to get your licks in. On this hot summer day in St. Louis, ice cream was a top seller, but one vendor, Arnold Fornachou, ran out of paper to serve them in. Luckily, the vendor next door, Ernest Hamwi, offered some of his zalabia, a waffle-like pastry. Fornachu rolled the ice cream in the pastry and sold the world’s first ice cream cone.
Year business accident occurred: 1870
Companies involved: Chesebrough Manufacturing Company, Unilever
Vaseline is widely recognized as one of the best hand and body care brands in the world, but it wasn’t what chemist Robert Chesebrough had in mind when traveling from New York to Pennsylvania to strike it rich from the area’s abundance of oil. His plan was foiled when a goo-like substance stuck to the oil rigs and caused them to malfunction.
However, when Chesebrough learned the drillers were using the goo, known as rod wax, to treat cuts and burns, he saw this as a money-making opportunity. The chemist took samples back to New York and created a lighter, more transparent gel. He named it Wonder Jelly but later changed it to Vaseline. When the product went on sale, one jar was sold every 60 seconds.
17. Super Glue
Year business accident occurred: 1942
Company involved: Kodak Laboratories
Raise your hand if you’ve ever gotten your fingers stuck together while trying to superglue something back together. Well, you can thank Harry Coover, a researcher at Kodak Laboratories who found himself in a sticky situation during World War II. Coover was part of a team trying to design clear gun sights for Allied soldiers when he discovered a chemical that stuck to everything it came into contact with.
Though initially dismissed, Cooper stuck to the idea that the public would want to make use of his discovery. Sure enough, the chemical, branded as superglue, became a household staple for fixing vases, lamps, ashtrays, pottery and several other things we accidentally damaged. Interestingly enough, Super Glue was later used in the Vietnam War as a way to temporarily patch up wounds.
Year business accident occurred: 1905
Companies involved: Popsicle, Unilever
It makes sense that the person who invented a sugary, icy treat that brings out the kid in all of us was actually a kid. Eleven-year-old Frank Epperson was trying to make a drink from powdered soda and water when he accidentally left it outside overnight, complete with the stirrer intact.
Upon finding his mix frozen solid the next morning, Frank gave it a lick, and to his surprise, it tasted pretty good. He named it the Ebbsicle, and years later his kids would rename it Pop’s Sickle. Nowadays, it’s hard to imagine summer without one, and over 2 billion are sold every year!
15. Implantable Pacemaker
Year business accident occurred: 1956
Company involved: University of Buffalo
This device has been a literal lifesaver for millions of people with heart issues. In the 1950s, engineer Wilson Greatbatch was trying to record the sounds of the human heart but used the wrong-sized resistor in the machine’s circuit. His folly led to an astounding revelation: This tiny machine carried an electrical pulse that mimicked a heart beating.
Though pacemakers already existed, they were clunky, painful and required hospital visits. Now, this portable device could send electrodes to the heart’s muscle tissue, helping it beat normally, while patients remained comfortably at home. In 1960, Greatbatch collaborated with Dr. William Chardack and Dr. Ander Gage to successfully implant a pacemaker into a man, who lived 18 months longer than expected.
14. Bubble Wrap
Year business accident occurred: 1957
Company involved: Sealed Air Corporation
Can you think of better packing material to protect fragile items, not to mention an amazing stress reliever? Engineers Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes first sold their new product as wallpaper and greenhouse insulation, but a lack of interest popped their bubble (but, on the bright side, at least they could use their own product to calm their anxiety).
In 1960, IBM needed a way to ship their new computers without damaging them, and bubble wrap became the great protector we know it as today. Meanwhile, Sealed Air became a billion-dollar company that now serves customers in over 120 countries.
Year business accident occurred: 1938
Company involved: Dupont
Before this invention, food really stuck to pans. How annoying, right? When chemist Roy Plunkett was researching refrigerants, he saw that some of the gas he’d been working with transformed into a white powder.
At first, Plunkett was annoyed at his failed experiment, but upon further testing, he realized that this new compound was a strong lubricant and resistant to heat. Trademarked by Dupont as Teflon in 1945, it was used for military purposes and, more commonly, for non-stick pans.
12. Corn Flakes
Year business accident occurred: 1898
Company involved: Kellog’s
Breakfast was never the same after this folly. Brothers John and Will Kellogg were attempting to make granola (via boiled grains) but accidentally left the pot on the stove for a few days. The result was thick, dry and moldy — but not entirely inedible.
The brothers experimented with the mixture, learning how to rid it of mold and created a new cereal. Called Corn Flakes, it was an instant hit for Will Keith Kellogg's Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flake Company, which would later be shortened to simply Kellog’s.
Year business accident occurred: 1987
Company involved: Allergan
Though Botox is best known as an anti-aging treatment, the product was first used to treat patients with eyelid spasms and eye-muscle disorders. However, Dr. Jean Carruthers noticed that with improved eye health came a fascinating side effect: Mrinkles were magically disappearing.
Dr. Carruthers shared her observations with her dermatologist husband, Dr. Allistar Carrthuers, and the two would alter the course of cosmetic treatments. After being approved by the FDA in 2002, Botox injections would go on to generate billions of dollars of revenue and became the go-to treatment for high-profile celebrities to maintain their looks.
10. Silly Putty
Year business accident occurred: 1978
Company involved: General Electric
During World War II, General Electric engineer James Wright was tasked with helping the government find a cheaper alternative to rubber, which was in high demand for soldiers’ boots, tank treads, tires and more necessities. While working on the project, Wright combined boric acid and silicone oil, and the result was a gooey, stretchy mess that could be molded into just about anything and copy words from comics and newspapers.
The government passed on using Wright’s “nutty putty,” but years later, a businessman named Peter Hodgson noticed people obsessively playing with the stuff at a party. He renamed it “Silly Putty,” and it was sold as a children’s toy that came in colorful plastic eggs. The putty went on to become one of the most popular toys of the 20th century — for both children and adults!
Year business accident occurred: 1924
Company involved: Kimberly-Clark
Before we used them to blow our noses, Kleenex tissues were mainly used to remove cold cream, with the stars of Hollywood and Broadway often being used to endorse the product. But when Ernest Mahler, the Kimberly-Clark company’s head of research, developed hay fever, he instinctively started using the tissues as disposable handkerchiefs.
Sensing they could now appeal to a wider market, Kimberly-Clark rebranded its product, and within two years, the public was ditching their hankies and using tissues. Though other brands of tissues have come along, Kleenex remains the world’s most popular facial tissue. And that is surely something to sneeze at.
8. Chewing Gum
Year business accident occurred: 1860
Company involved: New York No. 1
Can you imagine being so frustrated by your research that you decide to start chewing it? Inventor Thomas Adams was experimenting with using chicle (tree sap from South America) as a substitute for rubber. After failure upon failure, a deflated Adams went to the extreme and put a piece in his mouth. To his surprise, it was tasty and remarkably chewy.
Adams started adding flavors, and his new company, New York No. 1, began selling chewing gum around the world. Soon, companies like Wrigley created hits with gum brands such as Juicy Fruit and Wrigley’s Spearmint, followed by Chiclets, Double Bubble, Bazooka and others trying to chew up the competition. These days, about 374 billion pieces of chewing gum are sold throughout the world. That’s a whole lot of bubbles.
7. Dry Cleaning
Year business accident occurred: 1845
Company involved: N/A
Nothing makes our clothes look as fresh and crisp as when they’ve been dry cleaned, and how would we get those pesky stains out of our favorite formal wear without this modern technology? Of course, dry cleaning isn’t all that new. It dates back to early 19th century France when a housekeeper knocked over a lamp and spilled turpentine on a soiled table cloth.
When the fabric dried, her employer, Jean Baptiste Jolly, noticed that the stains were gone. He took it a step further, putting another table cloth in a bathtub filled with turpentine. Again, it came out clean. With his newfound formula, Jolly opened the world’s first dry cleaning shop.
Year business accident occurred: 1956
Company involved: Kutol
Kutol was a company renowned for its soft and easily shapeable cleaning product that was specifically designed to remove soot from wallpaper. But as homeowners began switching from coal to gas and electric heating systems, Kutol was burned financially. Luckily, the head of the company had a crafty sister-in-law, a school teacher who brought the product into her classroom on a hunch that her students would enjoy playing with it.
The kids couldn’t get enough of it, and Play-Doh was born. The company was saved, and by the late 1950s, Play-Doh was sold in stores like Macy’s, advertised on television shows and went on to become one of the most popular children’s products of all time — selling over 3 billion cans and counting.
5. The Post-it
Year business accident occurred: 1968
Company involved: 3M
In the hilarious movie, “Romy and Michelle’s Highschool Reunion,” the lovable loser Romy tries to impress her former classmates by declaring she invented Post-its. While we’d love for that story to be true, they were actually invented by another duo, Dr. Spencer Silver and Art Fry, scientists at 3M.
Silver made the initial discovery; while researching strong adhesives he found one that stuck lightly to paper and other surfaces and could be easily pulled off without causing damage. Unfortunately, the company had no idea what to do with it. Years later, Fry was looking for a way to stick papers into a book to have multiple bookmarks, paving the way for colorful Post-its to be seen all over binders, desks, bulletin boards and computer monitors around the globe.
4. The Slinky
Year business accident occurred: 1943
Companies involved: James Industries, Alex Brands
Few things bring more pure delight than watching a slinky “walk” down a flight of stairs. One of the world’s most popular toys (over 350 million have been sold!) was invented by naval engineer Richard Jones, who was building a system of tension springs that would help secure ship instruments in place during bad weather and rocky seas.
After clumsily dropping a spring on the floor, he was amazed at the way it bounced without falling over. Convinced children would love it, Jones perfected the product, and his wife, Betty, named it the “Slinky.” During its initial sale at Gimbels in Philadelphia in 1945, 400 slinkys were sold in just 90 minutes. Oddly, Jones walked away in 1960 (reportedly leaving his family to join a cult), but Betty saved the company from bankruptcy and turned the Slinky into a million-dollar enterprise.
Year business accident occurred: 1886
Company involved: The Coca-Cola Company
It may not be the best for us, but what can beat an ice-cold Coke on a warm summer day or alongside a burger and fries? The beverage was created by Dr. John Pemberton, a pharmacist in Atlanta, Georgia, who was trying to concoct an elixir that could help treat headaches and other ailments.
One of the key ingredients, cocaine, was eventually taken out, but his syrup mixed with carbonated water became a major hit, especially during Prohibition when the sale of alcohol was banned in the U.S. Today, Coca-Cola is, of course, a megacompany, selling an estimated 500 billion bottles of its products every year.
2. The Microwave
Year business accident occurred: 1945
Company involved: Raytheon Corporation
With more than 90 percent of U.S. homes owning microwaves, it’s hard to imagine life without the ability to make microwave popcorn, cook a quick meal or reheat leftovers in an instant. The concept was invented by engineer Percey Spencer, who was working on a project that involved radar research and vacuum tubes when he felt the candy bar in his pocket starting to melt.
Instead of focusing on his ruined snack (or ruined pants, for that matter), Spencer was intrigued. He conducted more experiments, including holding popcorn kernels near the device and watching in awe as they popped, which led to the birth of the microwave oven. Though initially very bulky and costly (the first models sold for $3,000 or about $24,000 today), eventually technology improved, prices went down, and the ovens rode a wave of success.
Year business accident occurred: 1928
Company involved: St. Mary’s Hospital
A miracle drug in modern medicine, penicillin is the pinnacle of happy accidents. Though British scientist Sir Alexander Fleming was actually trying to come up with a drug that could help cure diseases, it was his absentmindedness that would change the world.
Before leaving for a vacation, Fleming accidentally left a Petri dish unwashed and sitting in a corner. When he returned, he found that a mysterious mold had taken over the dish. Rather than toss it, Fleming conducted further research and discovered the mold had a strong antibiotic, known as penicillin, that could stop the spread of bacteria. Thanks to Fleming’s findings, penicillin was widely used to treat bacterial infections around the world, saving millions of lives in the process.