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Image: Chewing gum
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Exasperated from being unable to find a commercial application for natural latex, an inventor popped a piece in his mouth. He added flavors to it, and soon after, well-known gum brands such as Chiclets were born.
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updated 1/12/2011 8:10:07 AM ET 2011-01-12T13:10:07

They say that necessity is the mother of invention. But sometimes pure chance is.

Kellogg's Corn Flakes came about when two brothers forgot to properly store wheat and then noticed that it came out as flakes when later processed. They soon applied the same procedure to other types of grain. Popsicles, too, came about by mistake. An 11-year-old boy named Frank Epperson left a container of fruit-flavored soda with a stick in it outside on his porch, and it froze overnight. He woke up the next morning to an icy cold treat.

Forbes.com slideshow: Inventions that were accidents

Procter & Gamble, which started as a candle- and soap-making company, discovered by chance that its Ivory soap could be made to float — a quality that somehow communicated "clean" to consumers — when an employee left the mixture for it churning and went to lunch. Air seeped in, but the resulting cakes of soap were shipped out anyway. Americans loved the new, floating cleanser.

Absentmindedness aside, some of today's most common products became hits because their manufacturers, or in many cases ordinary consumers, noticed unplanned uses for them. That happened with Zout, which started out as an industrial-strength bloodstain remover used only in hospitals. Doctors and nurses observed that it worked just as well removing ordinary stains from clothing. Its maker, Henkel, now sells it to defeat "dirt, blood, foods and other set-in stains."

Forbes.com: The year's most unforgettable ad campaigns

This was also the case with Kleenex, which was originally developed for removing cold cream. Ernest Mahler, the head of research at Kimberly-Clark, had hay fever and started using the tissue as a disposable handkerchief. The consumer goods company then began advertising it as "the handkerchief you can throw away." Sales doubled, and Kleenex went on to become, and remain, the world's top facial tissue.

Kotex arose when World War I Red Cross nurses discerned that a cellulose wadding product meant for wound dressing also worked well as a sanitary pad. So Kimberly-Clark combined that wadding with fine gauze, for a product that is now one of the leading feminine care brands.

Forbes.com: The year's most creative advertising ideas

Inventions like these show that "innovation can come from anywhere — the research lab, marketing or the general consumer," says Stephanie Forest, a spokeswoman for Kimberly-Clark. Sometimes, inventions arise in a moment of frustration or anger. That happened when George Crum, a restaurant cook, sliced up potatoes as thin as possible to serve to a customer displeased with the way his spud was cooked. The result was the world's first potato chip.

Margaret Rudkin, a mother of three, had no idea she was developing a commercial product when she set to work baking a preservative-free loaf of bread for her allergy-prone son. She had never baked a loaf in her life, and she described one early attempt as "Stone Age bread," but she finally started turning out bread so good her family doctor prescribed it to other patients. By 1939 her family's farm, Pepperidge Farm, had baked its 500,000th loaf. The brand is now owned by Campbell Soup.

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Though these stories may suggest that accidental inventions are quite common, Lynn Dornblaser, a new products analyst at market research firm Mintel, says that isn't so. "It is less about inventing by accident and more about finding a truly unique way to repurpose something. And that repurposed something may have been something that did not work in its original state," she says.

That was true for Post-it notes. "The adhesive was too weak for its original purpose, so a new purpose was invented," Dornblaser notes.

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© 2012 Forbes.com

Explainer: The top 10 business stories of 2010

  • Image: BP CEO Tony Hayward surveys gulf spill repair work
    AP

    In 2010, the economy rebounded fitfully from the Great Recession — starting strong, wobbling at midyear but showing enough vigor by year's end to quell fears of a second recession. Yet Americans hardly felt relief under the weight of high unemployment, which began the year at 9.7 percent and is now 9.8 percent.

    An oil spill devastated the economy and environment along the Gulf Coast and hammered energy giant BP's stock price and reputation.

    China muscled past Japan to become the world's No. 2 economy, a reminder that the global economic order is shifting and America's supremacy is diminishing.

    It was a year of job shortages and swollen budget deficits that disheartened Americans and caused deep losses for incumbent Democrats on Election Day. The Federal Reserve tried with scant success to jolt the economy with record-low interest rates.

    The struggling economy was voted the top business story of the year by U.S. newspaper editors surveyed by The Associated Press. The oil spill in the Gulf came in second, followed by China's economic rise.

  • 1. Economy struggles

    Image: Unemployment brochures are seen on display at the employment training facility, JobTrain, in Menlo Park, Calif.,
    AP

    Climbing out of the deepest recession since the 1930s, the economy grows at a healthy rate in the January-March quarter. Still, the gain comes mainly from companies refilling stockpiles they had let shrink during the recession. The economy can't sustain the pace. The lingering effects of the recession slow growth.

    The benefits of an $814 billion government stimulus program fade. Consumers cut spending in favor of building savings and slashing debt. Businesses hesitate to hire. Cities and states lay off workers. Growth slows through spring and summer.

    Unemployment stays chronically high. In May, the number of people unemployed for at least six months hits 6.8 million — a record 46 percent of all the unemployed.

    Pointing to the deficits, Congress resists backing more spending to stimulate the economy. The Federal Reserve seeks to fill the void by announcing it will buy $600 billion in Treasury bonds to try to further lower interest rates, lift stocks and coax consumers to spend.

    As the year closes, the economy makes broad gains. Factories produce more. Consumers — the backbone of the economy — return to the malls. Congress passes $858 billion in tax cuts and aid to the long-term unemployed. Yet more than 15 million Americans are still unemployed. Economists say a full economic recovery remains years away.

  • 2. Gulf oil spill

    Image: Plaquemines Parish coastal zone director P.J. Hahn lifts his boot out of thick beached oil at Queen Bess Island.
    AP

    An explosion at a rig used by BP kills 11 workers and sends crude oil gushing into the Gulf of Mexico. The spill devastates the fishing and tourism industries along the Gulf Coast and causes environmental damage that may last for decades. BP sets up a $20 billion fund to compensate fishermen, restaurateurs and others whose livelihoods were damaged.

    The oil giant still faces civil charges and a criminal investigation by the Justice Department and lawsuits from hundreds of individuals and businesses. BP's stock market value shrinks by more than $100 billion after the April 20 disaster before bouncing about halfway back.

  • 3. China's rise

    Image: Workers install scaffolding at a construction site as a Chinese national flag flies near by in central Beijing.
    Reuters

    China passes Japan as the world's second-biggest economy. The World Bank says it could surpass the United States by 2020. China's gross domestic product is spread out over 1.3 billion people — amounting to about $3,600 per person. That compares with GDP in the U.S. of about $42,000 per person. In Japan, it's about $38,000 per person. China's thirst for raw materials and other products helps the rest of the world recover from the recession. Still, the U.S. and Europe complain that China gives its exporters an unfair competitive edge by keeping its currency artificially low.

  • 4. Real estate crisis

    Image: Home for sale
    AP

    Housing remains depressed despite super-low mortgage rates. The average rate on a 30-year fixed mortgage dips to 4.17 percent in November, the lowest in decades. But home sales and prices sink further. Nearly one in four homeowners owe more on their mortgages than their homes are worth, making it all but impossible for them to sell their home and buy another.

    An estimated 1 million households lose their homes to foreclosure, even though the pace slows after evidence that lenders mishandled foreclosure documents. Some did so by hiring "robo-signers" to sign paperwork without checking their accuracy.

  • 5. Toyota recall

    Image: Toyota Master Service Technician Mike Blomberg inspects a gas pedal assembly.
    AP

    Toyota's reputation for making high-quality cars is tarnished after the Japanese automaker recalls 10 million vehicles for sudden acceleration and other problems. Toyota faces hundreds of lawsuits alleging that some models can speed up suddenly, causing crashes, injuries and deaths. Toyota blames driver error, faulty floor mats and sticky accelerator pedals for the unintended acceleration. The uproar damages its business. Toyota's U.S. sales rise just 0.2 percent through November in a year when the industry's overall sales climb more than 11 percent.

  • 6. GM's comeback

    Image: GM headquarters
    AP

    General Motors stock begins trading again. It signals the rebirth of a corporate icon that fell into bankruptcy and required a $50 billion bailout from taxpayers. GM uses some proceeds from its November initial public offering to repay a portion of its bailout. (Washington still holds about a third of GM's stock.) GM's recovery helps rejuvenate the industry. Sales of cars and light trucks rise 11 percent through November compared with the same period in 2009. Shoppers who had put off replacing their old cars return to showrooms.

  • 7. Financial overhaul

    Image: Barack Obama, Christina Romer, Timothy Geithner, Barney Frank, Paul Volcker
    AP

    Congress passes the biggest rewrite of financial rules since the 1930s. The law targets the risky banking practices and lax oversight that led to the 2008 financial crisis. The law creates an agency to protect consumers from predatory loans and other abuses, empowers regulators to shut down big firms that threaten the entire system and shines more light into markets that have eluded oversight. Republican critics say the law goes too far, imposing burdensome rules that will restrict lending to consumers and small businesses.

  • 8. European bailouts

    Image: Athenians walks behind a board showing exchange rates at a foreign currency exchange shop in Athens on Wednesday.
    AP

    Greece and Ireland require emergency bailouts, raising fears that debt problems will spread and destabilize global markets. European governments and the International Monetary Fund agree to a $145 billion rescue of Greece in May and a $90 billion bailout of Ireland in November. The bailouts require both countries to slash spending, triggering protests by workers. Investors fear that debt troubles will spread to Spain, Portugal and other countries, weaken the European Union and threaten the future of the euro as its common currency.

  • 9. 500 million Facebook users

    Image: Mark Zuckerberg
    AP

    Facebook tops the 500-million-user mark. It expands its dominance of social media and further transforms how the world communicates. If it were a country, Facebook would be the world's third-largest. Facebook tightens its privacy settings after criticism that personal information is being disseminated without users' knowledge or permission. Founder Mark Zuckerberg is named Time magazine's "Person of the Year" and is the subject of a high-profile movie about Facebook's creation.

  • 10. iPad mania

    Image: Customer uses an Apple iPad
    AP file

    Apple Inc. unveils the iPad, bringing "tablet" computing into the mainstream and eroding laptop sales. Apple is expected to sell more than 13 million iPads this year. The iPads sell about twice as fast as iPhones did after their 2007 introduction. The price of Apple stock rockets more than 50 percent in 2010. Competitors scramble to try to catch up. They include the Dell Streak, BlackBerry PlayBook, the Samsung Galaxy Tag and HP Slate.

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