What do Play-Doh, potato chips, the Slinky, saccharin, penicillin, pacemakers, colorful wardrobes, Post-it Notes, Silly Putty, microwave ovens, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes and LSD have in common?

They are all mistakes.

Play-Doh was originally meant to be wallpaper cleaner. It failed and became the 30th greatest toy of all time instead, according to Time Magazine.  

It also had a fragrance made in its honor by Demeter Fragrance Library. The fine-smelling folks at Demeter said the fragrance was intended for “highly creative people who seek a scent reminiscent of their childhood.”

George Crum was a restaurant cook. Crum is not a good name for a cook. Even worse, Crum was a lousy cook, with an equally lousy disposition, who made soggy fried potatoes. One day in 1853, a customer, fed up with Crum’s sodden spuds, repeatedly sent them back, asking for them to be less on the soggy side and more on the crispy side. This, of course, made Crum angry and he angrily sliced his potatoes as thinly as he could, angrily fried them in hot grease and angrily sprinkled them with salt. The customer stopped complaining and the potato chip was born.

In 1943 a naval engineer named Richard James was trying to develop a spring that would stabilize important stuff on a ship at sea. One of his springs fell off a shelf and flip-flopped in a continuous series of arcs from a stack of books to a tabletop and then to the floor where it re-coiled itself and stood straight up. Thanks to the nagging of Richard’s wife, Betty, the unsuccessful naval spring became a child’s toy known as the Slinky. Time named the failed nautical stabilizing spring the 17th greatest toy of all time. 

And, if kudos from Time weren’t enough, the Slinky jingle is the longest running jingle in the history of advertising jingles.

Saccharin, the original artificial sweetener, was invented in 1879 because Constantin Fahlberg failed to wash his hands before lunch. Fahlberg was working on newfangled uses for coal tar, and just before lunch he spilled a chemical on his hands, didn’t wash it off and noticed a newfound sweetness in the bread he was having for lunch.

Alexander Fleming worked in a bacteria laboratory. One day in 1928, he was in a hurry to leave for his vacation and didn’t tidy up his workstation, leaving a pile of dirty petri dishes. When he returned from vacation on September 3, he discovered a fungus growing on some of his cultures; he also discovered that bacteria wouldn’t come near that fungus. He, as a result, discovered penicillin. 

(In other words, slobs invented saccharin and penicillin. This is a useful rejoinder for children everywhere who are constantly nagged by their parents to clean up their rooms.)
The pacemaker was invented because somebody grabbed the wrong thing. Wilson Greatbatch was working on a circuit to measure rapid heartbeats. Without looking, he reached into a box for a 10,000-ohm resistor but grabbed a 1-mega-ohm one instead. Greatbatch’s wrongly ohm-ed circuit pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for a full second. Then it repeated and repeated and repeated and repeated, over and over again, and the sound was music to Greatbatch’s ears: it was the sound of a perfect heartbeat. 

Malaria is a particularly nasty disease and can cause decreased consciousness, significant weakness, loss of appetite, convulsions, low blood pressure, respiratory distress, circulatory shock, renal failure, hemoglobin in the urine, bleeding, pulmonary edema, low blood glucose, acidosis, coma and death.

Lord Byron, Amerigo Vespucci, Oliver Cromwell, Pope Urban VII, two Holy Roman Emperors, Conrad IV of Germany, the man who composed the Christian standard “It Is Well with My Soul,” and David Livingstone, of “Dr. Livingstone, I presume?” fame, all died from malaria.

On the bright side, malaria changed fashion forever. In 1856, William Perkin was hell-bent on curing malaria. He tried to do so by coming up with artificial quinine, but what he came up with was a colorful mess. This colorful mess became the first synthetic dye and, as a result, clothing became brighter. One more albeit less fashionable thing came from Perkin’s mistake: decades later, German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich used Perkin’s dyes to pioneer chemotherapy. 

(Not bad for a malaria treatment that went wrong, huh?)

God invented the Post-it Note in 1974. Arthur Fry was a faithful 3M employee in its glue division and, as such, kept himself up to date on all things sticky. Arthur was also a faithful yet practical Christian and wanted to find a way of better holding bookmarks in place in his church hymnal so he could get to the hallelujahs and instances of Hark! The herald angels sing more easily. His desire to more efficiently sing God’s praises led to the Post-it Note.

Silly Putty was supposed to be a rubber substitute in World War II. It failed and became the gooiest member of the National Toy Hall of Fame in 2001. It’s also one of the few toys ever blasted into space: Silly Putty was used by Apollo 8 astronauts to secure their tools in zero gravity.

A melted candy bar was responsible for the microwave. In 1945 Raytheon’s Percy Spencer was fooling around with a magnetron when he noticed the candy bar in his pocket had melted. He then turned the magnetron on popcorn and the popcorn did its thing and popped. Two years later, Raytheon built the first microwave oven. It weighed 750 pounds, stood 5½ feet tall and cost $5,000.

Seventh-day Adventists don’t like a lot of things, including, but far from limited to, tattoos, pierced anything, jewelry, alcohol, tobacco, dancing, rock music, cards, junk food, popular novels, movies, same-sex marriages, premarital sex, professional sports, or cloning; but they sure do like their wholesome breakfast cereals.  

In 1894, two Seventh-day Adventist brothers, John and Will Kellogg, were looking for some new wholesome foods for the infirm in accordance to the church’s rather strict diet. Will accidentally left some boiled wheat sitting out and it went stale. Along with their distaste for dancing, Adventists are not fond of wasting things, so the brothers put the stale dough through rollers hoping to make long sheets of it but got flakes instead. They toasted the flakes and the patients loved the stuff despite the name the brothers gave their cereal, Granose.   

John and Will went on to toast other grains, including corn, and hit it big in 1906 with Corn Flakes. John quit the company on principle because Will insisted on adding sugar to the cereal, thereby, in his brother’s strict Adventist mind, lessening its wholesomeness. 

Albert Hofmann was a Swiss chemist. He spent his days researching lysergic acid derivatives in Basel, Switzerland, and on November 16, 1938, he synthesized a derivative in an effort to create a respiratory and circulatory stimulant that had no effect on the uterus. Unbeknown to Hoffmann, he had just invented LSD. He put the derivative aside for five years until he re-synthesized it on April 16, 1933. On this day, Hoffmann accidentally absorbed a small dose through his fingertips and set off on the first acid trip.

Hofmann, even though he was higher than the Swiss Alps, managed to describe his experience as “affected by a remarkable restlessness, combined with a slight dizziness. At home I lay down and sank into an intoxicated-like condition, characterized by an extremely stimulated imagination. In a dreamlike state, with eyes closed (I found the daylight to be unpleasantly glaring), I perceived an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with an intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors. After some two hours this condition faded away.”

Three days later, Hoffmann intentionally ingested 250 micrograms of LSD and set off for home on his bike, embarking on two trips at once if you will. In drug culture, April 19 is celebrated as Bicycle Day in honor of Hoffmann’s trips.

The Swiss chemist enjoyed his invention throughout his life, calling it a “medicine for the soul [that gave him] inner joy, an open mindedness, a gratefulness, open eyes and an internal sensitivity for the miracles of creation.”

Albert Hofmann lived to be 102 years old.

And myself?  I get thrown into advertising Hall of Fames, have flattering hyperbole written about me by people who have nothing better to do than write about advertising and receive very flattering honorary doctorates complete with funny hats all because of my life in advertising.  

And what do I do?  Quit.  Yes, I quit all to become a self-described fake artist.  Or, as I am fond of saying, “I have gone from a career of selling people things they don’t want to making things they don’t want.”

Talk about a mistake.  

The moral of the Play-Doh- potato chips-Slinky-saccharin-penicillin-pacemakers-colorful wardrobe-Post-it Notes-Silly Putty-microwave ovens-Corn Flakes-LSD-Jim Riswold story: there is no such thing as a mistake, per se. Mistakes will either make you famous like the people above or you will learn from them. 

Oscar Wilde said it better than I ever could when he said, “Most people die of a sort of creeping common sense, and discover when it is too late that the only things one never regrets are one’s mistakes.”
Now go make some mistakes, some glorious mistakes.  

Jim Riswold