The 20 most fascinating accidental inventions

2. Post-its

Jacob Turcotte

They come in all colors of the rainbow, but the original came in only yellow – and that too was an accident. Post-it Notes are now a must-have tool for many offices, but they wouldn’t exist without a chemical engineer, a church choir singer, and a persistent laboratory manager.

It all started with Spencer Silver, a chemist for 3M, a large manufacturing company. In 1968, Mr. Spencer was supposed to be inventing a strong adhesive for the aerospace industry. However, he accidentally made the exact opposite: a weak adhesive made of tiny acrylic microspheres.

The spheres were nearly indestructible and would stick well even after several uses.

At first, 3M considered Spencer’s invention useless.

Spencer wanted to sell the adhesive as a sticky surface for bulletin boards. He imagined people attaching notes to the board and peeling them off when they were done – no nails or tacks required. The idea didn’t catch on.

Five years later, Art Fry – another 3M chemist and frequent choir singer – invented the Post-it Note in a moment of extreme frustration.

 All of Mr. Fry’s paper bookmarks kept falling out! Every time he stood and opened his hymnal, the small slips of paper would disappear into the book or fall to the floor. Fry needed a way to open his hymnal right to the page, without the messy hassle.

Fry had an idea: Instead of putting the adhesive on a bulletin board, put it on the paper. That way, you could stick the paper on anything. He took his idea to Spencer, who of course was ecstatic.

The higher-ups at 3M still weren’t. The product was put on the back burner for another three years.

Fortunately, a laboratory manager named Geoff Nicholson believed in the idea. Mr. Nicholson decided that if 3M’s marketing department wouldn’t back the product, then his lab team would market it themselves. They handed out free samples and 90 percent of the people ordered more Post-it Notes.

Fun fact: According to Nicholson, the standard Post-its are yellow because they first used yellow scrap paper from the lab next door. When they ran out of scrap, they just bought more yellow paper. No one thought to change the color ... yet.

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Dear Reader,

About a year ago, I happened upon this statement about the Monitor in the Harvard Business Review – under the charming heading of “do things that don’t interest you”:

“Many things that end up” being meaningful, writes social scientist Joseph Grenny, “have come from conference workshops, articles, or online videos that began as a chore and ended with an insight. My work in Kenya, for example, was heavily influenced by a Christian Science Monitor article I had forced myself to read 10 years earlier. Sometimes, we call things ‘boring’ simply because they lie outside the box we are currently in.”

If you were to come up with a punchline to a joke about the Monitor, that would probably be it. We’re seen as being global, fair, insightful, and perhaps a bit too earnest. We’re the bran muffin of journalism.

But you know what? We change lives. And I’m going to argue that we change lives precisely because we force open that too-small box that most human beings think they live in.

The Monitor is a peculiar little publication that’s hard for the world to figure out. We’re run by a church, but we’re not only for church members and we’re not about converting people. We’re known as being fair even as the world becomes as polarized as at any time since the newspaper’s founding in 1908.

We have a mission beyond circulation, we want to bridge divides. We’re about kicking down the door of thought everywhere and saying, “You are bigger and more capable than you realize. And we can prove it.”

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