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.
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."
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.
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.
© 2012 Forbes.com