There is endless inspiration that comes from the origin stories of some of the most common objects today. If not inspiring, they’re definitely interesting as hell. We’re constantly trying to re-invent how we think and perceive the process of design. Sometimes, accidental inventions or shifts in perspectives have the potential to birth the next best innovation. Other than being limited by resource frameworks such as time, money or manpower. The takeaway isn’t that we should all be making reckless mistakes hoping to land on something fruitful but to remember that innovation can come from the most unpredictable places. Sometimes a shift in perspective is all we need.
It is common knowledge that Ancient Greeks and Mayans chewed on naturally occurring tree gums. However, the chewing gum that we know of today was the result of pure luck. Picture this: It's the early 19th century.
A man named Thomas Adams is hard at work in a factory trying to create synthetic rubber to make tires, boots and toys. He was using naturally occurring chicle gum to make this synthetic rubber. He keeps ending up with a mixture that’s too soft and unusable. As luck would have it, some of this product ends up in his mouth. Lo and behold, chewing gum was discovered.
Serendipity? We think so.
Would you believe us if we told you t-shirts were a result of reinforced gender biases? Up until the early 20th century, men wore shirts - button down shirts.
Sewing was a cultural no-go for men during that time. In 1904, The Copper Underwear company would go on to introduce the world’s very first t-shirt aimed at single men - a shirt stretchy enough to go over one’s head with the accompanying copy: “No Safety Pin‚ No Buttons, No Needle, No Thread”.
There’s 2 kinds of people. The “gym is torture” and the others. Well, that statement holds quite a good amount of truth to it. So there!
Originally designed as human hamster-wheels with railings for prisons where the convicted would walk up to 10 hours a day. Eventually, they would go on to attach grain grinders and even water pumps to these torture devices to extract energy in a very cheap way. They spread all over Britain and some even made it to the United States. Eventually, people would go on to protest this form of punishment as being too severe.
Personally, still protesting.
Imagine a wallpaper made entirely of bubble wrap. What does that make you feel like? Well, let’s say the guys who tried it didn’t like it very much. Engineer Alfred Fielding with his partner Marc Chavannes were attempting to design a garage wall to be very new-age, spacey and futuristic looking and ended up with a wall of bubble wrap.
All it took was a shift in perception and they realised this bulbous material could be very useful in protecting fragile items especially during transportation. Come 1960, a patent for the same was filed by a new company Sealed Air Corp who interestingly still hold the trademark on their Bubble Wrap technology.
This one was kind of a go-figure one but we’re always amused at how frustration births some of the most fantastic technology in the world. The story goes that one fine day, a wealthy woman named Josephine Cochrane, absolutely frustrated with her servants for chipping her expensive China plates, says: “If nobody else is going to invent a dish washing machine, I’ll do it myself!”. And she actually did. She invented the very first working dishwasher with separate compartments for different types of dish-ware with a copper boiler for the hot water and a motor to allow the spraying of water inside. Although her version never commercially succeeded, it served as the inspiration for the ones that did.
You know what they say, necessity IS the mother of all invention.
One interesting version reports it as a mere accident that turned successful. Although original patents for tea bags were filed in 1903, they didn’t find much utility in markets until 1908. An American tea importer Thomas Sullivan sent out samples of a new blend and packaged them in silk pouches. His assumption was that they would empty the contents of the pouch into the water - as they always had.
When customers finally saw the benefit, he began a process of prototyping of these tea pouches to transform them into the tea bags we use today.
Remember the famous Miss America pageant protest from 1968? Yes the one where the infamously trite association of bra-burning to feminism came to be. Women were asked to bring their brassieres, along with multiple other items as symbols of protest against unrealistic beauty standards.
Interestingly enough, the invention of modern-day bra was also one woman’s form of protest against arbitrary beauty ideals. Up until the 20th century saw women in the western world adopt corsets - highly stiff and rigid undergarments tightly worn to ‘aesthetically’ slim waistlines and accentuate breasts. Although painful, this worked for most women of modest proportions.
In 1910, Mary Jacobs - someone who didn’t fit these ‘modest’ proportions, called quits on putting herself through the ringer everyday and invented the first bra. Of course, this quickly took off because all women wanted was a practical piece of clothing to support their breasts.
Of course, an accident led to the birth of Velcro - a commonplace item of the 21st century. On a hunting trip with his dog, engineer George de Mestral noticed and was obviously very annoyed with burs along the way sticking to the dogs fur and his socks. Sheer curiosity led to him observing a bur sample under a microscope to reveal hook-like hairs that caused the attachment to furs and fabrics.
A metaphoric bulb had been lit and years of prototyping with a bunch of textiles and eventually nylon - led to the development of the popular binding material.
Would you believe Malaria led to the discovery of the world’s first ever synthetic dye and the ephemeral shade, Mauve?
In the mid 19th century, Britain was in the midst of establishing colonies in tropical locations. This led to an increase in cases of contracted Malaria. 18 year old William Henry Perkin was engaged in finding a cure to the dangerous disease with his German professor and chemist August Wilhelm von Hofmann. During one of his trials, he ended up with a thick sludge-like liquid - definitely not the cure. However, the distinct purple colour caught his eye. He had just created the world’s first ever synthetic dye that was vibrant and didn’t wash out and in the process, kick-started a movement within the field of chemistry.