Accidental Invention: Synthetic Plastic

In today’s world, the term “plastic” is ubiquitous, encompassing a vast array of materials that have become indispensable in our daily lives. Originally derived from natural materials like horn and rubber, the development of synthetic plastics emerged as a response to the growing demand for durable, versatile, and cost-effective materials. From early semi-synthetic forms to the diverse range of polymers we use today, plastics have evolved from a scientific marvel into a manufacturing staple.

Contrary to what we associate it with today, “plastic” was originally an adjective that meant “pliable and easily shaped.” Now, it is a name used to refer to a specific group of materials called polymers, which are made up of long chains of molecules. Polymers are abundantly present in nature, but in recent years, scientists have begun creating synthetic versions as a more widely available form of “plastic” substances.

Saving the Elephants

While regular production of consumer goods grew significantly following the Industrial Revolution, the availability of naturally-derived materials did not, and manufacturers were faced with the need for synthetic materials that could keep up with demand. For millennia, natural plastics such as horn, tortoiseshell, amber, rubber, and shellac were commonly used to create a variety of products, from jewelry and combs to cutlery and piano keys. However, in the late 19th century, a growing concern arose over the environmental impacts of using these materials, emphasized by the suggestion that elephants were in danger of becoming extinct due to the popularity of using their tusks to make goods from ivory.

In 1863, a New York billiards supplier published an ad offering $10,000 in gold to anyone who could create a sufficient alternative to ivory. In response, businessman John Wesley Hyatt began experimenting with various combinations of solvents, building off the research of chemist Alexander Parkes, who created the first manufactured plastic, “Parkesine,” out of cellulose nitrate. By combining nitrocellulose with camphor, Hyatt invented celluloid – the first semi-synthetic plastic, which was quickly put to use in the manufacturing of goods meant to mimic the look and function of items made from natural materials.

Fake it ‘Til You Make It

The first fully synthetic plastic, polyoxybenzylmethylenglycolanhydride, was inadvertently created in 1907 by scientist Leo Hendrik Baekeland in his pursuit of a less expensive and more readily available substitute for shellac. One day, during his experimentation, he combined formaldehyde with phenol and applied heat to the mixture. When he returned the next day, he discovered a substance not like the shellac he was expecting but rather a polymer that did not melt, dissolve, or crack. He named the substance Bakelite and three years later established a company to manufacture it commercially.

This revolutionary new form of synthetic resin quickly became a popular choice for commercial and industrial goods, and it was advertised as “the material of a thousand uses.” Its combination of moldability and durability made it excellent for a variety of applications, especially in the growing automotive and electric power industries, where it was used for components such as knobs, dials, circuitry panels, sockets, and insulators. It even introduced the novelty of making brightly-colored items, including buttons, jewelry billiard balls, iron handles, and children’s toys. By 1944, Bakelite could be found in more than 15,000 different products and is still commonly used to make dominoes, mah-jongg tiles, checkers, and chess pieces.

Life in Plastic

The invention of Bakelite marked the beginning of the modern plastics industry, spurring the manufacture of a multitude of products enhanced by the new materials that offered more desirable properties than previously utilized natural resources, such as toasters, coffee makers, hair dryers, vacuum cleaners, headphones, and more. Other scientists soon also developed new forms of thermosetting plastics that eventually became favored over Bakelite for their increased durability and flexibility, as well as other versatile compounds such as polystyrene, polyester, polyvinyl chloride, polyethylene, and nylon.

Today, there are hundreds of thousands of types of polymers that can be customized for different purposes just by changing their structure (e.g., adding an additional carbon molecule to flexible polyethylene creates a more robust polypropylene.) In response to environmental concerns, companies have also begun developing different kinds of plastic, such as polylactic acid (PLA), derived from corn starch and can be composted, disintegrating over time. Similarly, there has also been a return to the use of natural materials to create bioplastics, such as polyethylene made from sugar cane.

The invention and proliferation of plastics represent a transformative chapter in the history of materials innovation, which has not only revolutionized manufacturing processes but also played a pivotal role in shaping modern consumer culture. What began as a quest to find alternatives to natural materials like ivory and shellac has evolved into a multi-billion-dollar industry with applications ranging from consumer goods to cutting-edge technologies, leaving an indelible mark on both science and society

If you enjoyed this invention story, you might also like these about seismographs, silly putty, and super glue.

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Accidental Inventions

Mothers of Invention: Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson

A trailblazer in science and technology, theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson is responsible for the research behind numerous innovations in telecommunications such as the touch-tone telephone, portable fax, and fiber optic cables. Her legacy is also that of an influential leader in education & public policy and a steadfast advocate for women and minorities to join the scientific community.

With an impressive career spanning multiple industries such as academia, government, and business, theoretical physicist Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has shattered glass ceilings while significantly impacting how we communicate and connect in the modern age. She is credited for numerous advancements in science and technology, education, and public policy, leading her to be inducted into the National Women’s Hall of Fame in 1998.

History-Making Education

Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson was born in Washington, D.C. on August 5, 1946. From a young age, she showed a remarkable aptitude for science and mathematics, which led her to pursue higher education at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). There she earned her Bachelor’s, Master’s, and Ph.D. degrees – all in physics – becoming one of the first two African American women to earn a doctorate in physics in the U.S., and the first to earn a doctorate from MIT.

Telecommunications Research

In 1976, Dr. Jackson joined the technical staff at AT&T Bell Laboratories, where she researched the electronic properties of ceramic materials and began her work in telecommunications. Throughout her tenure, she conducted pioneering research that laid the groundwork for many of today’s telecommunications technologies such as the touch-tone telephone, portable fax, solar cells, fiber optic cables, and the technology behind caller ID and call waiting. Dr. Jackson was named a Fellow of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences & the American Physical Society, and she has received 53 honorary doctorate degrees.

The impacts of her research cannot be overstated. The touch-tone telephone made communication more accessible and efficient for millions worldwide and laid the groundwork for the foundation of mobile phones, smartphones, and other handheld devices integral to our daily lives. Similarly, her work on fiber optic cables became the backbone of modern internet infrastructure, making high-capacity data transmission possible. This real-time communication across continents has transformed industries, facilitated remote work and learning, and fostered global collaboration on an unprecedented scale.

Presidential Status

In 1995, President Bill Clinton appointed Dr. Jackson as the first African American Chair of the U.S. Nuclear Regulatory Commission (NRC), where she implemented significant improvements in regulatory environmental and public health & safety standards and led the formation of the International Nuclear Regulators Association (INRA). Later, President Barack Obama appointed her to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology and named her co-chair of the President’s Intelligence Advisory Board and the President’s Innovation and Technology Advisory Committee.

From 1999 to 2022, Dr. Jackson served as the 18th (and also the first woman and African American) president of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute (RPI), where her efforts to improve the quality of education and research opportunities significantly increased the university’s national rank and the number of student applicants. During her tenure, she led initiatives to attract low-income, female, international, and other underrepresented students, seeing the value of differing perspectives and advocating for more women and minorities to pursue careers in science. Today, RPI has more diversity in gender, ethnicity, and geographic background than ever before.

Awards and Recognition

Throughout her illustrious career, Dr. Shirley Ann Jackson has been presented with numerous honors and accolades for her work. In 2007, she received the National Science Board’s Vannevar Bush Award for “a lifetime of achievements in scientific research, education, and senior statesman-like contributions to public policy.” In 2011, she earned the prestigious Philip Hauge Abelson Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science for her “extraordinary leadership of and contributions to the scientific community, government, universities, industries, and future generations of science and engineering professionals.”

In 2012, Dr. Jackson was given the inaugural America Competes Award for Public Service by the U.S. Council on Competitiveness, calling her “a leader who has worked tirelessly to improve the quality of life in America and abroad, through public service and private sector outreach, and to those who show an extraordinary commitment to excellence and the American spirit.”

On May 19, 2016, she was awarded the National Medal of Science, the nation’s highest honor for contributions to science and engineering. On what she now considers the proudest day of her career, she was recognized for her achievements in research, science-rooted public policy, and inspiring the next generation of STEM talent – the three main fields in which she strived to make a difference.

Dr. Jackson’s journey serves as an inspiring example of what’s possible when passion, talent, and opportunity intersect. Her groundbreaking work in telecommunications has enriched our lives in countless ways, and her influence as an advocate for women and minorities has empowered students and other researchers to become more involved in science and technology for decades. As stated by Time Magazine, she is “perhaps the ultimate role model for women in science.”

For more stories about professional women whose perseverance made them inspirational figures in their fields, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering. You can also read about the innovations of Alice H. Parker, Grace Hopper, and Hedy Lamarr.

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Accidental Invention: Kevlar

While often associated with high-stakes industries like defense and aerospace, Kevlar has been used in a variety of products, including tires, gloves, sports equipment, and more. The fibrous material that began as an unexpected discovery in a laboratory has gone on to save lives, transform industries, and inspire engineers around the world.

Kevlar, a super-strong synthetic fiber, is a key component in everything from bulletproof vests to racing sails. Kevlar’s durability and versatility make it a go-to material for improving product performance and safety. The story of Kevlar is a compelling blend of scientific curiosity, accidental discovery, and valuable innovation.

An Unexpected Solution

In the mid-20th century, chemist Stephanie Kwolek was employed by the DuPont Company to work on projects involving polymers and low-temperature condensation processes. At one point, she was tasked with finding a new variety of lightweight, durable, and heat-resistant fibers to replace existing steel wires in car tires. During her research, she worked with synthetic polymers (or polyamides), dissolving them in solvents and then running the solution through a machine that would spin it into fiber.

One day in 1965, during her experimentation, Stephanie got an unexpected result. Instead of the typical thick, transparent polymer solutions she had grown accustomed to, this new solution was cloudy and watery. She then spun the mysterious substance and consequently created one of the strongest fibers the world had ever seen.

A Fiber of Many Uses

Following the discovery of Poly(p-Phenylene) Terephthalamide and its valuable traits, DuPont began commercially producing the product under the name Kevlar. While it became a component in radial tires as originally intended, the material also found its way into numerous other applications. Due to the fibers’ impressive toughness (up to five times stronger per weight than steel), durability, and heat-resistant qualities, Kevlar proved useful in other industries, such as defense, aviation, and construction.

Today, one of Kevlar’s most common applications is in protective gear. With its incredible tensile strength, heat tolerance, and resistance to penetration, it has been used to make bulletproof vests, work gloves, and firefighter suits. Kevlar’s remarkable qualities are also used in racecar tires & brake pads, parts for aircrafts, spacecrafts, and boats, and sports equipment like medicine balls, mountaineering ropes, and tennis racquets.

Weaving the Future

Over the years, scientists and engineers have pushed the boundaries of Kevlar’s capabilities. Different formulations and treatments have been developed to enhance its resistance to chemicals, flames, and abrasion, making it suitable for an even wider range of applications. DuPont continues its commitment to invest in constant quality improvements.

As we look to the future, Kevlar’s potential seems limitless. Researchers are exploring ways to integrate the fibers into wearable technology, medical devices, and even lithium-sulfur batteries

Kevlar’s journey from a serendipitous laboratory discovery to a global engineering staple is nothing short of remarkable. With ongoing research and development, the future of Kevlar holds promise for even more groundbreaking applications thanks to its impressive durability and versatility.

If you enjoyed this accidental invention story, you may be interested in reading about Safety Glass, Super Glue, and Silly Putty.

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Accidental Invention: Saccharin

If you’ve ever looked through a collection of sweeteners for your coffee or tea, you’ve probably found several packets in various colors. But do you know what is actually inside? The pink one contains saccharin – a zero-calorie sugar alternative that was a surprisingly serendipitous result of laboratory experimentation 150 years ago.

A substance that is 200 to 700 times sweeter than sugar, saccharin was the first-ever sugar substitute and has been commonly used as a calorie-free beverage additive for decades. Though there has been much debate about its potential health impacts, saccharin has continued to be one of the most popular artificial sweeteners on the market.

A Sweet Surprise

In 1876, American chemist Ira Remsen returned from Munich and Gottingen University in Germany where he studied sulfobenzoic acids and subsequently established the first chemistry department at the newly-established John Hopkins University in Baltimore. A year later, the firm of William H. Perot & Co. hired German chemist Constantin Fahlberg to conduct an advisory examination of a shipment of demerara sugar that was alleged to have been artificially darkened to avoid higher import taxes, with arrangements for him to work in Remsen’s laboratory. After completing his analysis, Fahlberg received permission to stay at the university, and began researching coal tar derivatives alongside Remsen and his team.

One day, after returning home from the lab, Fahlberg noticed the piece of bread he was eating tasted exceptionally sweet. However, he quickly realized that it was not actually the food that was sweet, but his hands. So, he returned to the lab and tasted all of his beakers, glasses, and bowls until he determined which substance was the source – an oxidation of ortho-toluenesulfonamide that created benzoic sulfimide, which he called saccharin, meaning “of or resembling sugar.”

Sweeter than Sugar

Over the next few years, Fahlberg and Remsen co-authored an article describing the synthesis of saccharin, highlighting that the compound was miraculously “sweeter than cane sugar.” Though Remsen did not like the concept of industrial chemistry, Fehlberg recognized the commercial potential of his discovery and applied for both German and American patents to cheaply produce the substance in larger quantities. Despite Remsen’s protests, Fahlberg was awarded a US patent in 1886 and began manufacturing saccharin in pill and powder forms, marketing them as beverage additives.

Before too long, however, competitors and consumers began having concerns about consuming saccharin and, with the release of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle in 1906, Americans began to demand action in response to food-industry horror stories. As a response, Harvey Wiley, head chemist of the US Department of Agriculture, proposed the first saccharin ban, believing that it could not possibly be safe. This was quickly shot down by President Theodore Roosevelt, who was given a prescription from his primary physician for the substance as a weight-loss strategy, stating “Anyone who says saccharin is injurious to health is an idiot. Dr. Rixey gives it to me every day.”

Sickly Sweet

Eventually, in 1912, saccharin was banned for use in food manufacturing, but it was still available as a standalone product, continuing to be a desirable “non-fattening” alternative for diabetics and those looking to cut calories. Soon, it became an even more popular substitute due to sugar shortages during the World Wars. In the 1960s, saccharin gained even more traction as American interest in weight loss continued to grow, and the recognizable brand Sweet’n Low was created.

Several studies conducted on rats in the following years suggested a link between saccharin and bladder cancer, leading to the Saccharin Study and Labeling Act of 1977, which required products containing the ingredient to have a warning label stating it may be hazardous to the health of consumers. However, later findings concluded that those results were irrelevant because humans metabolize the chemical differently, and it was removed from the potential carcinogens list in 2000, rescinding the packaging regulations.

Though there has been continued controversy about artificial sweeteners, the discovery of saccharin opened the doors for new innovations that have provided numerous alternative choices for individuals looking for low-calorie sugar substitutes. As consumer preferences continue to trend towards “lighter” and healthier options, it’s likely that artificial sweeteners will remain significant in the food and beverage industry for years to come.

If you enjoyed this tale of accidental innovation, check out similar stories about Corn Flakes, potato chips, and penicillin.

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Alice Parker

Mothers of Invention: Alice H. Parker

If your home gets cold in the winter, you adjust the thermostat. However, in olden days, keeping a house warm involved laborious maintenance of wood or coal burning fireplaces and stoves. That all changed in 1919 when inventor Alice H. Parker received a patent for a “new and improved” furnace that paved the way for the HVAC systems we use today.

Before the era of central heating and air conditioning, keeping homes warm was not an easy task – and maintaining a constant temperature of your choosing was nearly impossible. Then, over a century ago, a revolutionary invention from a woman who overcame the odds to share her design with the world laid the framework for the comfortable climates we enjoy today.

No More Stoking the Fire

Little is known about Alice H. Parker, the African-American inventor credited with creating the model for today’s central heating systems. She was most likely born during the late 19th century in Morristown, New Jersey and was well-educated, having potentially been a graduate of Howard University with honors. However, other commonly-reported details of Alice’s life cannot be reliably confirmed due to conflicting documents, and the photos typically associated with her are of different women.

What is known is that a woman with that name received a patent on December 23, 1919 for a “new and improved” heating furnace powered by natural gas. At the time, natural gas was used for lighting and industrial heating, but most homes used wood-burning fireplaces or coal-burning stoves for warmth. Alice’s design offered a “comparatively simple, reliable, and efficient solution,” eliminating the labor necessary for keeping a fire going, as well as the smoke, soot, and ash that came along with it.

Turning up the Heat

Alice’s heating system worked by drawing in cool air and passing it through a series of small furnaces all connected to a common heat exchanger. Then, after being warmed using combustion of natural gas, the air would travel through ducts to individual rooms throughout the house. Notably, it was the first design to incorporate individually-controlled heating units, allowing each room to be set to its own temperature.

The move away from the use of coal or wood was revolutionary for several reasons, including eliminating the need to chop wood, reducing the risk for accidental fires, and providing a more cost-effective energy source. It was also a miraculous feat for Alice to have received a patent at all, considering she completed the process largely on her own in a time when women were not even allowed to vote, and many universities were not admitting black students into their programs.

Going With the Airflow

While her exact design was never actually implemented due to concerns of heat flow regulation, it became a significant framework for the central home heating models of the future. Today’s HVAC systems utilize similar components such as thermostats, zone heating, and forced air furnaces. It is said that her inspiration came from dealing with inefficient methods of heating her home during cold New Jersey winters, and her solution laid the framework for future generations to avoid such challenges.

In 2019, Alice’s accomplishments were recognized by the National Society of Black Physicists, acknowledging that her invention “conserved energy and paved the way for the central heating systems in homes today.” That same year, the New Jersey Chamber of Commerce established the Alice H. Parker Women Leaders in Innovation Awards, celebrating the pioneering contributions by women to the state.

While much of her legacy remains a mystery, Alice H. Parker deserves credit for her impressive invention and ability to successfully receive a patent despite her societal limitations at the time. Her design continues to make a significant impact on the comfort of our homes, for which we can all be grateful.

For more stories about professional women whose perseverance made them inspirational figures in their fields, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering. You may also be interested in reading about the innovations of Josephine Cochrane, Margaret Rudkin, and Martha Coston.

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Riata Center releases list of Cowboy100 honorees

Our beloved Chief Executive Officer, Denise McIntosh was named to list of upcoming honorees for the Riata Center for Innovation and Entrepreneurship to honor the third Cowboy100 Honoree Gala celebrating the business and leadership achievements of OSU graduate-owned or -led businesses. The gala will be held on March 29 at the Wes Watkins Center in Stillwater.

The Cowboy100 serves as a resource for students to engage with industry leaders, allows the Riata Center to be the reference point for entrepreneurship throughout the university and to raise funds for the Riata Center’s student programs and activities.

As part of the Cowboy100, the highest top-line revenue generating honorees for the years being measured are recognized on the Blazing10 list. While the overall list celebrates growth, the Blazing10 focuses primarily on top-line revenue, another important measure of business success.

“We are happy to release the list of the 2024 Cowboy100 honorees,” said Marc Tower, assistant dean for Outreach and Economic Development at the Spears School of Business. “The quality and diversity of this group is inspiring. We have companies and leaders from multiple industries, and from companies large and small. It is exciting to celebrate and share the hard work and success of these outstanding OSU graduates and Cowboy leaders. We look forward to celebrating their achievements on March 29.”

For more information and the complete list:

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Accidental Invention: Potato Chips

WARNING: Reading this article may incite a ravenous craving for potato chips. Viewer discretion is advised.

The crunchy, salty, irresistible snack that you know and love was first created nearly two centuries ago. Potato chips are said to have originated from an interaction between a picky restaurant patron and an irritated cook… But is that really where they came from?

The Legend of the Salty Chef

As the story goes, Native and African American chef George (Speck) Crum worked at Moon’s Lake House in Saratoga Springs, New York. One day in 1853, he encountered a particularly fussy eater. Cornelius Vanderbilt had ordered fried potatoes, which he then sent back because they were cut too thick. George, in the act of spiteful pettiness, proceeded to slice a potato as thinly as possible and fry it to a crisp… And Cornelius loved it.

As fun as this story is, historians have mostly debunked it. George Crum still, however, often receives credit for popularizing the snack, as he continued to serve them to enthusiastic patrons.

George’s “Saratoga Chips” quickly became a hit around town and then beyond Upstate New York. In 1860, the chef opened his restaurant, Crum’s House, where each table was served a delicious basket of his famous potato chips. The delicious crisps eventually became quite sought-after throughout the U.S., with the first “Saratoga Chips” being sold in grocery stores in 1895 by William Tappendonby in Cleveland, OH.

Other Cooks in the Kitchen

Over the years, other possible origin stories of the invention of the potato chip have surfaced.

George Crum’s coworker and sister, Catherine Adkins Wicks, also claimed that she was the true inventor of the potato chip. In some versions of the original story, she is said to have been the one who served the thin crips to Cornelius Vanderbilt. In another, Catherine was allegedly peeling potatoes when she accidentally dropped a slice in a pot of boiling fat.

Another Moon’s Lake House employee, “Eliza, the cook,” was claimed to have been making chips as early as 1849. A New York Herald article from the time said her “​​potato frying reputation is one of the prominent matters of remark at Saratoga.” Other restaurant individuals credited with the invention include the owners, restaurant manager Hiram Thomas, and several other cooks.

A different story from Smithsonian Magazine reports that “the earliest known recipe for chips dated to 1817 when an English doctor named William Kitchiner published The Cook’s Oracle, a cookbook that included a recipe for “potatoes fried in slices or shavings.” So, historians have largely agreed that we may, unfortunately, never know the true origin of the chip.

You Can’t Eat Just One

As you can probably guess, the popularity of potato chips grew exponentially, and recipes and production continued to evolve.

In the early 1920s, Herman Lay (name sound familiar?) began making his potato chips and selling them out of the trunk of his car. As he began commercializing the product, rumors spread that the chips had an aphrodisiac quality, which simply bolstered his sales even more.

Smithsonian Magazine also reports that “In 1926, Laura Scudder, a California businesswoman, began packaging chips in wax-paper bags that included not only a ‘freshness’ date but also a tempting boast – ’the Noisiest Chips in the World.’” The new packaging design helped the snack stay fresher and crispier for longer, making them even more popular and allowing them to be mass-marketed.

It wasn’t until the 1950s that potato chips started seeing flavoring, thanks to Irishman Joe “Spud” Murphy. With his founding of Tayto, he developed a manufacturing process that created some of the most popular flavors we still know and love: Sour Cream and Onion, Barbecue, and Salt and Vinegar.

Today, Americans consume about 1.85 billion pounds of potato chips each year, supporting an estimated $10.5 billion industry. Because, in the words of Lay’s 1961 spokesperson Bert Lahr, “You can’t eat just one!”

If you enjoyed this accidental invention story, you might also like the ones about silly putty and Corn Flakes.

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Inventions Ahead of Their Time: NASA Tools

If you’ve got a memory foam mattress you love dearly, you’ve got NASA to thank for that. Temper foam, cochlear implants, and portable computers are just a few of NASA’s incredible inventions that were used for space exploration long before they became everyday items in society.

It’s no secret that space travel requires some pretty advanced technology. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) is America’s civil space program whose mission is to “explore, discover, and expand knowledge for the benefit of humanity.”

Over the years, NASA has designed technology that has often been ahead of its time. Many of these tools that were created for space travel have evolved into essential technologies we use every day.

Wireless Headphones

In 1961, following a space shuttle incident in which a pilot could not contact his recovery team after the cabin flooded and took out all radio connections, NASA started searching for a self-contained radio transceiver that could be integrated into a helmet. At the time, ITT Labs had recently developed their MS-50 Headset, which used an acoustic tube connected to tiny transducers as both a microphone and receiver. This headset was soon incorporated into a radio receiver called a Kellorad unit that also featured noise-canceling technology.

Eventually, the design found its way into home and office products, creating those Bluetooth headphones you use daily.

Computer Mouse

In the early 1960s, NASA scientist Bob Taylor was “on the lookout for new ways of using computers to make them more useful, more interactive in some sense.” At the time, computers were used simply as arithmetic machines, but Bob and NASA researcher Doug Englebart had more ideas. Together, a project began to develop a device that would help manipulate data and allow humans to be more involved with computing systems.

These ideas expanded past just a computer mouse, as Doug wanted to “develop a way for capturing and sharing wide ranges of information among a group of people who are working cooperatively toward some end.” Thus, the futuristic concept of computers being used with displays, keyboards, and mouses was developed, which eventually led to the types of machines we now use every day.

Memory Foam

In 1966, NASA’s Ames Research Center was working on developing a material that was both soft and super shock-absorbing to help protect pilots in the event of a crash. This polymeric temper foam not only helped cushion seats for impact but also made them more comfortable for the ride.

Once memory foam became available commercially, its uses became practically limitless. It has been used to cushion helmets, car seats, bike seats, military gear, and, of course, those oh-so-cushy mattresses.

Cochlear Implant

In the 1970s, NASA engineer Adam Kissiah Jr., inspired by his struggles with conventional hearing aids, began experimenting with new designs. Using his background knowledge in electronic sensing systems, telemetry, and sound and vibration sensors, Adam created a new type of hearing aid that would also clarify sounds and amplify them.

Adam’s cochlear implant uses digital pulses to stimulate auditory nerve endings and send signals to the brain. Today, over 219,000 patients have received these revolutionary devices, allowing many born deaf to hear for the first time.


In 2013, the Johnson Space Center (JSC) Engineering Directorate built R5 (aka Valkyrie) to compete in the DARPA Robotics Challenge (DRC) Trials. This entirely electric bipedal humanoid robot was a first for NASA and was designed to be capable of operating in degraded or damaged human-engineered environments. Ideally, the robot could assist on missions by testing travel and performing human-like tasks where it could be potentially dangerous to send a real person.

With advanced sensors and a body full of maneuverable joints, Val is considered to be one of the most sophisticated robots in existence.

For more stories about influential designs and inspirational innovators, check out our podcast, The Art of Engineering.


Accidental Invention: Corn Flakes

Corn Flakes – the best-selling breakfast cereal in the United States. You know them. You love them. But do you know how they were created? Check out this article to learn the surprising story behind the accidental invention of this iconic Kellogg’s product.

As with many notable inventions, Kellogg’s Corn Flakes were created partially by accident. Though the product may not be what the Kellogg brothers were intending to make at the time, their stroke of culinary luck led to the advent of The Kellogg Company and America’s best-selling breakfast cereal.

The Kellogg Brothers’ Battle Creek Sanitarium 

Before the Kellogg name was associated with cereal and snacks, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg and his brother Will Kieth (WK) Kellogg were well-known as the operators of the Battle Creek Sanitarium. This so-called “health spa” catered to helping clients tend to a variety of ailments. Treatments included hot and cold water baths, hydro-therapy, electric-current therapy, light therapy, as well as exercise and massage regimens.

The basis of these treatments was inspired by the brothers’ commitment to their faith in the Seventh Day Adventist fundamentalist church. One of the main principles of the religion entailed maintaining the purity of one’s bodily temple. For the Kellogg’s, this meant adhering to a strict “healthy” diet including lots of water and vegetables and discluding substances like alcohol and caffeine.

Bland is Best and Easy to Digest

To support their ideal diets, the brothers started concocting different healthful foods that they and their patients could eat regularly. The goal was to avoid fat, grease, salt, and spices and focus on simple ingredients that were good for the digestive system. So, Dr. John began experimenting by mixing and baking flour, oats, and cornmeal.

As the legend goes, it was during one of these afternoons of cooking that the Kellogg brothers were called away from their kitchen in the midst of mixing a batch of wheat-based cereal and later returned to see that the dough had fermented. When they rolled the dough into thin sheets and baked it, they were positively surprised to find that it turned into perfect crispy and tasty flakes. Over the years, WK continued experimenting with the recipe and eventually found that corn created even more delicious and crunchy flakes than wheat.

A Spoonful of Sugar Makes the Sales go Up

The creation of this flaked cereal occurred alongside the booming of the Industrial Revolution – a time where individuals became busier and needed quicker and easier-to-eat breakfast options. The Kellogg brothers seized this timely opportunity and began to mass-market their product in 1906. Conflict arose, however, when WK started adding sugar to the cereal to make it more palatable, though Dr. John was avidly opposed.

To settle the dispute, WK purchased the rights to use the Kellogg name from his brother after a long legal battle and subsequently founded The Kellogg Cereal Company. The product soon came to boast several “firsts” in the cereal world, including offering the “Funny Jungleland Moving Pictures Booklet” as a prize to encourage sales, and introducing Cornelius (Corny) Rooster as a mascot. Though the Corn Flakes we know today aren’t exactly the health food they were initially designed to be, their success as one of the most iconic and best-selling cereals in the US proves that they were an invention the breakfast world is certainly thankful for.

As the Kellogg brothers discovered, you never know when or how your next great innovation will come to life. If you have an idea you’d like to explore, contact us to let us know how we can help (even if you end up creating something you didn’t expect).

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