Down but not out, Brandenberger noticed that the coating on his latest attempt peeled off as a transparent film, and, quick to realise that it was not a useless by-product but the start of something big, he set about developing a machine for the mass manufacture of what we know today as ‘cellophane’.
By 1908, Brandenberger had patented his invention and his machine. Today, cellophane finds use in food packaging, but is also the base for self-adhesive tapes such as Sellotape.
This article was taken from the book, ‘The Ideas Companion’ by Johnny Action. If you would like to read more, the book is available from Amazon.
Harry Brearley was working to prevent corrosion in rifle barrels when he accidentally invented something that would revolutionise the world of cutlery. Not an obvious route, but Brearley was an observant chap and he knew when he had something worth keeping.
Brearley had a background in steel. His father was a steel melter and young Harry had followed his father into the industry. Through years of private study and night school he became an expert in the analysis of steel and in 1908, at the age of 37, was given the opportunity to set up the Brown Firth Laboratories for research purposes. It was under this guise that Brearley was given the job of looking at the problem of rifle barrels.
The rifle problem was simple: when the gun was fired, the heat and gases generated would quickly erode away the inner barrel. Brearley was given the task of finding a steel that would not erode away, he instantly set about combining varying amounts of chromium with steel to fix the problem.
Brearley made history on 13 August 1913 when his mix 0.24% carbon and 12.8% chromium with steel created the first ever stainless steel. And although Brearley didn’t immediately realise what he had created, the resistance of the metal to acids such as vinegar and lemon juice soon pointed him in the right direction.
At that time cutlery was made from silver or carbon steel, or plated with nickel. None of which were resistant to rust, so Brearley launched his ‘rustless steel’ (later renamed as the more catchy stainless steel) on the world with great gusto.
But it was not all smooth sailing. Brearley was initially unable to interest his employers in his new steel, but once they saw how well the product was selling, Brown Firth Laboratories soon changed their mind, claiming that they owned the patent because Brearley was working for them at the time of the invention. The dispute unresolved, Brearley resigned from the company in 1915, and became works manager at another works in Sheffield where he continued to produce stainless steel.
Often erroneously believed to have been developed as part of the American Space programme, Velcro was actually invented in 1948 by a Swiss engineer who had just been walking his dog. When George de Mestral got home, he noticed that both he and his pet were covered in burrs (the seed-sacs of plants that typically spread themselves by hitching rides on the fur of passing animals). Suddenly an idea struck him. Ignoring the dog, he plucked one of the offending items from his cloth jacket and raced to his microscope. Under magnification, the infuriating secret of the burr was revealed. It was covered with hooked strands, and these, he realised, would inevitably cling to the coat of a beast that rubbed up against it. In the case of his jacket, Mistral reasoned that the hooks formed an even firmer bond by slotting into tiny loops in the fabric.
Mistral knew at once that the burr principle could be used to develop a revolutionary fastening device, but it took him several years to perfect his invention. The main difficulty was getting the ‘loop’ side of the fastener right (the ‘hook’ side was more straightforward). The solution turned out to be to sew the loops from nylon under infra-red light.
In 1951, Mistral applied for a Swiss patent for an early version of his fastening system. He christened it ‘Velcro’ (the word is a combination of ‘crochet’ and ‘velour’) and opened his first factory the following year. In 1955, he obtained a US patent for his invention, and two years later Velcro went into production in Manchester, New Hampshire. Before long, the company was selling 60 million yards per annum. Looking at plants can pay
Robert Chesebrough was an enterprising young kerosene salesman who fell on hard times when his supply of sperm whale dried up. So in 1859, he went to seek his fortune in the oilfields of Pennsylvania. His quest turned out to be successful, but not in a way anyone could have imagined.
Soon after his arrival, Chesebrough noticed the oil works complaining about something they called ‘rod wax’. This was a very waxy substance that formed on their drilling equipment and gummed it up. It’s only redeeming feature as far as they were concerned was its ability to speed up the healing of small cuts and bruises.
Intrigued, Chesebrough took a sample of ‘rod wax’ back to his Laboratory in Brooklyn. Eventually, he worked out how to isolate the substance from the ordinary petroleum. Then he started to experiment with it, subjecting himself to all manner of cuts and burns before applying the petroleum jelly. Everything healed magnificently.
To popularise his invention, Chesebrough have it the name ‘Vaseline’ (from Wasser, the German for water and Elaion, Greek for oil). Then he embarked on a singularly masochistic road show, demonstrating his faith in his product by wounding himself in public before applying it.
Soon he was selling a jar a minute. His customers used Vaseline for every conceivable purpose from cleaning nasal congestion to cleaning furniture. By the end of the nineteen-century, Chesebrough was extremely rich and his petroleum jelly was breaking into Europe.
Cheseborough persisted with his ‘practise what you preach’ attitude toward Vaseline throughout his life. Shortly before he died at the impressive age of 96, he revealed that he had been eating a spoonful of the stuff every day for many years.
In 1905, 11-year old Frank Epperson tried making soda pop, then a popular drink, by mixing soda water powder and water. Accidentally, he left the soda out on his porch all night. Temperatures dropped so low that the next day, young Epperson found his soda pop had frozen with the stirring stick in it! He didn’t know it then, but he had accidentally concocted the very first popsicle! It wasn’t until 18 years later, in 1923, that Epperson remembered his invention, applied for a patent and started selling “Eppsicle” ice pops iin different fruit flavors. Later on, his kids started referring to it as the “Popsicle” and ever since, it’s been hard to resist the refreshing allure of this tangy summer treat!This article was taken from the book, ‘The Kid Who invented the popsicle’. If you would like to read more, the book is
Teflon was invented in 1938 by a DuPont research chemist named Roy J plunkett. One day he was experimenting with a coolant called TRE (tetrafluoroethylene) to establish its suitability for refrigeration purposes.
For some reason, the pressurised cylinder of the gas filled earlier by Plunkett’s assistant failed to discharge properly when the valve was opened. Throwing all safety rules out of the window, the pair decided to cut it open to see what had happened.
Instead of a violent explosion, they found that the gas had solidified inside the cylinder to form a strangely slippery white powder. Indeed, tests revealed that it was the slipperiest substance in existence. It was also inert and had an extremely high melting point.
DuPont registered Teflon as a trademark in 1945 and started marketing products coated with the miracle lubricant the following year. Since then, Teflon has not only been used for millions of frying pans, but also in microchips, rocket shields and space suits. The product was immortalised as the nickname of the supposedly unprosecutable New York gangster John ‘Teflon’ Gotti (nothing would stick) and has even been applied to the creaking joints of the Statue of Liberty.
Here are a few other accidental innovations that deserve at least a mention: saccharin (artificial sweetener), Scotchguard (aka Sellotape), the band-aid, the frisbee, the sandwich, Silly Putty, x-rays, vulcanized rubber, and safety glass.