In a cartoon published by the satire magazine Punch in 1899, an inventor looking for a patent clerk was told that since everything had already been invented, the clerk was unnecessary and had been eliminated. Since then, thousands of new inventions have radically changed the world in ways no one could have imagined. Some were labored on for years before finally being perfected, while others were invented by accident. Here are the stories of some inventions that almost weren’t invented.
It was 1853, and George Crum was having a rather crummy day. He was working his shift as a chef at a posh resort in Saratoga Springs, New York when a customer decided to be difficult. The man kept sending his french fries back to the kitchen, complaining that they were too thick and soft. Crum decided to teach his fussy customer a lesson. He sliced a potato paper-thin and fried it to a crisp. But instead of being angry, the customer loved the crispy potatoes. Soon, word got around about Crum’s new version of a french fry, and customers began requesting more.
Crum began stocking what he called “Saratoga chips” at his restaurant, and tourists began visiting Saratoga Springs specifically to eat his crunchy potatoes. Eventually, they made their way into grocery stores, and became the popular snack they are today, selling over a billion pounds per year.
Another "chance" invention of one of today's popular snacks happened in 1930, with the chocolate chip cookie.
Ruth Wakefield and her husband owned the Toll House Inn, famous for its home-cooked food. One day, Ruth was in a hurry. She was whipping up a batch of her famous chocolate cookies, when she realized she was out of baker’s chocolate. She chopped up a chocolate bar instead and mixed it in the dough, expecting the chocolate bits to melt and be absorbed into the cookies. But instead, she wound up creating the first chocolate chip cookies, which were a huge hit with her customers. Nestle, the company that Ruth bought her chocolate from, made a deal with her in order to print her chocolate chip cookie recipe on their packages. They also included a small chopper in their packaging, and eventually started manufacturing “Toll House Chocolate Morsels” to make things easier. These we know today as chocolate chips.
One of the most interesting invention stories is also one of the most important: penicillin.
In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming, a bacteriologist at a London hospital, left some slides full of staph bacteria out and forgot about them. When he finally remembered them, he discovered that they were contaminated with mold. But instead of throwing them away, the doctor decided to investigate them under a microscope first. What he found was amazing: the mold was actually preventing the bacteria’s growth.
Dr. Fleming discovered that the mold, called penicillium, contained a substance called penicillin that killed bacteria. There was only one problem: at the rate the mold was growing, Dr. Fleming would never have enough to create a drug from it. So he sent his assistants on a mission - scouring grocery stores and markets for moldy fruits and veggies.
Finally, one assistant came up with a cantaloupe covered with golden mold. This mold was another type of penicillium, and it produced over 200 times more penicillin than the original mold. Chemists were able to increase this number by over 500%. After years of growing mold and extracting its juice, scientists were finally able to administer penicillin for the first time. In World War I, the death rate from pneumonia was 18%, which dropped to 1% during World War II, with penicillin’s help. When it became available for civilian use, the results were equally dramatic with previously incurable bacterial infections. Who could've guessed that a moldy melon would be so valuable?