They say necessity is the mother of invention, but this is only half the story. In truth as many inventions come about as a result of capricious accidents and happenstance than from seeking to innovate and pave the way to the future. Furthermore, many people set out to invent a specific thing, or overcome a clearly defined engineering issue, and end up creating the solution for something altogether different in the end. Here are three keen examples of this process in action. Each of the following inventions has lived on to this day as a solution to a problem we didn’t know we needed a solution to, from getting a toy to walk downstairs, to ensuring our vase survives a cross-country journey in one piece.
The quest for an infinite source of energy has occupied the minds of some of our greatest engineers, philosophers and inventors through-out history. Virtually everyone, from Archimedes to Leonardo DaVinci has turned their thoughts to this lofty goal. Joining in this hitherto misguided pursuit was Parisian mathematician and theologian Blaise Pascal. Working in the 17th century, Pascal hit upon the idea that if you were to set a wheel spinning with near zero friction, you could, in theory, establish perpetual motion. Of course now we know that inconvenient limitations of physics, let alone the fact of air resistance, dooms this line of reasoning to failure.
Yet in spite of this, Pascal did manage to invent a very smooth spinning wheel, and one that would ultimately take on a life of its own as the basis for the casino game roulette. The wheel was found to lend itself much more admirably, and capably, to this simpler role and has become a casino mainstay for several hundred years. Forward thinking from the start, roulette is now enjoyed by a fresh generation of tech literate players who access its classic gameplay in online form through reputable platforms that are ensuring its popularity endures long into the future.
The Slinky is the archetypal desk-gadget/toy, and has been enjoyed by young and old alike for decades. This unassuming spring made from metal or plastic has the miraculous ability to walk down stairs of its own volition. The origins of the slinky lie in a happy accident. Navy engineer Richard James was involved in developing sophisticated dampening and suspension systems for machinery on battleships. The goal of this was to protect the components from the challenges of high winds, choppy seas and enemy fire.
When working one day, he accidentally dropped one of the large springs that was being used for this project. To his amazement the spring began to walk down the stairs. Lucky for everyone, James saw the marketing opportunity in this capricious act, and brought the slinky to market in the 1950s.
Bubble wrap is a commonplace feature of everyday life and has become the go-to material people use whenever they want to protect fragile items in transit or storage. This is due to the fact that bubble wrap is built from a matrix of air bubbles, effectively cushioning and protecting anything you cover it with. It’s also great for popping with your fingers, of course. Most would naturally assume that bubble wrap has always been used for packaging, and that it must have been devised and intended for this role given how capably it performs this task. But bubble wrap’s story is one of the strangest on this list, as it actually started life as a type of designer wallpaper.
Devised by designer duo Al Fielding and Marc Chavannes in 1957, the earliest bubble wrap was created by heat-sealing shower curtains together. It’s unclear how long it took Chavannes and Fielding to abandon their initial plans for their new wonder material, but with 400 million dollars of bubble wrap produced each and every year, here’s hoping it was sooner rather than later.