Some of the best things happen pretty much by accident

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It’s amazing how many well known products were created by accident.

Take Play-Doh. Originally invented in the 1930s by soap manufacturer Kutol Products as a way to clean coal residue from wallpaper, it became apparent by the early 1950s that the transition to natural gas home heating was seriously hurting sales.

Facing bankruptcy, the company relaunched the product as a modelling clay in a range of colours after noticing children loved to play with the putty in local nurseries.

Post-it notes have a similarly accidental conception. In 1968 Dr. Spencer Silver was labouring away in a lab at 3M trying to create a super adhesive, but he ended up with glue that really wasn’t very sticky at all.

Undeterred, for the next four years Silver told people in the company about his invention. No one could think of a use for it, until a colleague named Art Fry started using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in place. Even the iconic yellow colour was accidental – the office next door happened to have some yellow scrap paper, so they made the first batch with that.

My favourite accidental origin story is probably that of the Slinky. In 1943 mechanical engineer Richard James was working on a project to keep sensitive ship equipment steady in rough seas when he clumsily knocked a spring off his shelf and watched with astonishment as it appeared to gracefully step onto his table top and then onto floor. With a $500 loan, James and his wife Betty formed a company and launched the Slinky as a toy, and it became an almost instant success.

Touchingly Betty James remained the company president until 1998 when she stepped down at the age 80. Two years before her retirement she explained her rationale for keeping Slinkys at an affordable price to the New York Times, “So many children can’t have expensive toys, and I feel a real obligation to them.”

I am not sure there is much of a lesson in all this, except that sometimes we arrive at places we did not expect, and it is probably a good idea to keep an open mind when we do.

This article originally appeared in the Lancaster Guardian, where I am a guest columnist.

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