12TH APRIL, 2019

Accidental Innovation - Tax Cloud's Top 8

Spilling your coffee on a freshly laundered white shirt may not be the best start to a Monday morning, but not all accidents lead to heartache. In fact, accidents are behind some of the most useful innovations we consider normal today.

In this blog, we’ve listed a few of our favourite accidental innovations to get you in the mood for an innovative week.

The Microwave

One of the most famed accidental discoveries, the microwave oven was initially discovered by the engineer, Percy Spencer, in 1946. While investigating radar defence, Spencer realised a chocolate bar in his pocket had begun to melt. Following some experiments on popcorn and eggs (the latter of which exploded in the face of one of the researchers), the microwave was introduced to the household in 1967.


Originally referred to as ‘Mould Juice’, legend has it that Dr Alexander Fleming discovered the antibiotic in 1928 after returning from a holiday. He returned to his laboratory in St Mary’s Hospital to find a petri-dish containing Staphylococci had, by error, been left open. The dish had been contaminated by a green mould called Penicillium notatum, which was killing some of the bacteria he was growing. He isolated the mould, grew more of it, and then experimented to see how many other bacteria it could kill. In 1939, Oxford Pathologist Howard Florey alongside Ernst Chain, worked with American scientists to develop an injectable mass-produced form of penicillin just in time to help soldiers wounded in World War 2.


Before it was beloved by children across the world, Play-Doh was a wallpaper cleaner. In the age of coal fires, there was a need for a product to clean soot off the walls. However, following the transition to gas heating and vinyl wallpapers, Noah Vicker and his nephew, Joe, came across a new use for the putty. Joe’s sister-in-law, who worked in a nursery, told him that her students loved the product. The Vickers then added colour and an almond scent to the putty and marketed it as a child’s toy, leading to $3 million in sales by 1958.

Super Glue

In the search for plastic gun sights for use in World War One, Harry Coover Jr. came across a very sticky formula when looking at acrylates.

He abandoned the formula, but lucky for DIY-ers everywhere, he came across it again in 1951 and realised its potential.


In 1829, Chemist Robert Chesebrough was visiting a Pennsylvania town where petroleum had recently been discovered. After 5 years of perfecting his extraction technique, Chesebrough patented his process which began the triple-purification process unique to the Vaseline brand. A true scientist, Chesebrough spent over a decade perfecting his extraction and purification process before introducing his “Wonder Jelly” to the American public on a larger scale. By 1874, only two years after its branding, Vaseline® Petroleum Jelly was being sold across the U.S. at the rate of a jar a minute.


Many medications can find their origins in accidents, but arguably the most famous is the favourite medication for erectile dysfunction. Originally researchers were testing sildenafil for heart disease. Two trials revealed much to the researchers; little effect on the heart but plenty effective elsewhere. Nowadays, Viagra sells more than $1 billion a year.


Roy Plunkett was investigating chlorofluorocarbons when he came across every chef’s best friend. Upon checking a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluorothylene, he found the sample had polymerized spontaneously into a white, waxy solid to form polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE).
PTFE is inert to virtually all chemicals and is considered the most slippery material in existence. DuPont quickly patented the material and today we know it as Teflon. It has been used all over, from frying eggs to the Manhattan Project.


On a hunting trip, George de Mestral came across everyone’s favourite fastener. The satisfying sound of Velcro has its roots in the burdock burrs which got caught in his dog’s fur. The small hooks of the burrs inspired de Mestral to try and make his own fabric imitating this effect. Though it was slow on the uptake, NASA’s use of Velcro for space suits popularised the material worldwide, all thanks to a dog park.

The lesson to be learned here is that with a little luck, some opportunistic people and R&D investment, accidents can lead to pretty profitable results. Maybe spilling your coffee on your shirt is not the best start to the week, but it could also be the start to something great.

Barrie Dowsett, ACMA, GCMA
Author Barrie Dowsett, ACMA, GCMA CEO, Tax Cloud
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