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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Accidental Invention: Dynamite

You’re probably familiar with the Nobel Prize – one of the most iconic awards an individual can receive in science and humanities. But did you know that the award’s namesake, Alfred Nobel, invented dynamite? This explosive creation was one of his earliest and most notable inventions.

The accidental invention of dynamite begins with a quest to tame a highly volatile and explosive chemical and transform it into a controlled and practical tool for demolition projects. This journey of discovery not only revolutionized industries but also raised profound ethical questions about the dual nature of scientific inventions – their capacity to build and destroy.

Taming Volatile Chemicals

In the mid-19th century, Swedish chemist and engineer Alfred Nobel worked with nitroglycerin, a highly volatile and explosive liquid. He attempted to find a safe and manageable way to harness nitroglycerin’s explosive power for construction and mining purposes and control its detonation.

During this process, he created a detonator called a “blasting cap,” which contained mercury fulminate that would explode via heat or shock and activate the nitroglycerin. While his device was promising, the chemical was still highly unsafe to handle and transport.

Nobel’s breakthrough came in 1867 when he discovered, by chance, that by mixing nitroglycerin with an absorbent material like diatomaceous earth, he could create a much more stable and controllable explosive compound. This invention was the birth of dynamite.

An Explosive Invention

After Nobel’s first monumental creation, he was inspired to continue developing more useful explosive products. One significant invention was “gelignite,” a gelatinous explosive that was even more stable than dynamite and could be molded into various shapes, making it ideal for construction and mining. Another was ballistite, one of the first smokeless black powders, which served as a propellant and was the precursor to cordite.

While dynamite is no longer the primary explosive used in many applications, it still finds purpose in various fields. In mining, it is used for controlled blasts to break rock and extract valuable minerals and resources. In controlled building demolitions, it can bring down structures efficiently and safely. In construction, it can be used for excavating foundations, modifying landscapes, and opening tunnels for transportation.

The Legacy of Dynamite and Alfred Nobel

The invention of dynamite forever changed construction, mining, and demolition fields, making large-scale projects more feasible and efficient. However, its history is also marked by its destructive potential, often associated with warfare and terrorism due to the devastating effects it can cause for humans and the earth.

Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, was deeply affected by its dual nature – useful for both practical and destructive purposes. In his later years, he established the Nobel Prizes, using his fortune to recognize and reward contributions to humanity in physics, chemistry, medicine, literature, and peace. This was his attempt to leave a legacy that transcended the destructive power of his most famous invention.

While its usage has evolved over the years, the history of dynamite serves as a powerful symbol of the potential consequences, both positive and negative, of scientific discovery. No matter how useful an invention may be, it is important to remember that great responsibility comes with great power (and knowledge).

If you enjoyed this accidental invention story, you might also enjoy the ones about implantable pacemakers, super glue, and x-ray machines.

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Inventions Ahead of Their Time: Automatic Doors

Daily, we encounter automatic doors almost everywhere we go – from supermarkets to office buildings, airports, and even our favorite coffee shops. They have become integral to modern architecture, making our lives more convenient and efficient. But have you ever wondered about the origins of this remarkable invention? (Hint: The idea predates modern electricity!)

The concept of automatic doors may seem like a recent development, but their origins trace back further than you might imagine. The first known automatic door dates back to ancient times when the Greeks and Romans utilized hydraulics to operate doors with the help of pulleys and weights. However, it wasn’t until around the 20th century that true automatic doors began to take shape as we know them today.

Opening New Doors

The visionary behind the modern automatic door (and the first vending machine!) was Heron of Alexandria, a Greek engineer and mathematician who lived in the first century AD. Heron is credited with inventing the “pneumatica,” a series of mechanical devices powered by air pressure generated by fire, which included an early version of automatic doors. These doors, also known as “Heron’s doors,” operated using pneumatics and relied on compressed air to open and close.

Although Heron’s automatic doors were ingenious, they were undoubtedly ahead of their time. The technology required to create a practical and reliable automatic door system wasn’t available until much later. It was in the 20th century that significant advancements in electronics, sensors, and control systems paved the way for the widespread adoption of automatic doors.

When One Door Closes, Another One Opens

Centuries later, in 1931, American engineers Horace H. Raymond and Sheldon S. Roby developed an optical sensor for an automatic door that was installed at Wilcox’s Pier Restaurant in West Haven, Connecticut. This revolutionary piece of equipment allowed waitresses to seamlessly carry trays through doorways without kicking them open.

Then, in 1954, the American engineers Dee Horton and Lew Hewitt created the first commercial sliding automatic door, known as the “Horton Automatics.” These doors relied on an electric motor and a complex mechanism of gears and rollers to facilitate smooth opening and closing.

Not long after that, the advent of microprocessors in the 1970s brought a new level of sophistication to automatic door systems. With the ability to integrate sensors, timers, and logic circuits, these doors became more intelligent and responsive. This evolution improved safety features such as presence detectors, which use infrared or motion sensors to detect a person’s approach and trigger the door’s opening.

Leaving the Door Open

With time, automatic doors also evolved beyond just sliding motion, encompassing various types that suit different architectural designs and functional requirements. Swing doors, similar to those found in supermarkets, were introduced to accommodate high-traffic areas. These doors utilize sensors to detect a person’s approach and open in response, facilitating a seamless entry or exit experience. Revolving doors, popularized in the early 20th century, have also undergone automation. This variety combines the benefits of energy efficiency, security, and smooth traffic flow, making them ideal for busy entrances such as airports and hotels.

As technology continues to advance, the future of automatic doors looks promising. Integrating artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms may enable doors to adapt and learn from human behavior, anticipating movement patterns and adjusting door operation accordingly. Furthermore, the emergence of touchless technologies, such as gesture recognition and voice control, may redefine the user experience, allowing individuals to simply wave their hands or give a voice command to effortlessly gain access to a building, eliminating the need for physical contact.

From Heron’s ancient pneumatic doors to the cutting-edge automated systems we have today, the evolution of automatic doors is a testament to human ingenuity and the relentless pursuit of convenience and efficiency. These remarkable inventions have forever transformed our daily lives, making entryways more accessible, enhancing security, and optimizing traffic flow.

To learn about more inventions ahead of their time, check out these stories about motorcycles, electric cars, and corrective lenses.

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Inventions Ahead of Their Time: Corrective Lens/Contact Lens

Today, a large portion of the population wears eyeglasses or contacts regularly. But how long ago would you suppose corrective lenses were first utilized? 100 years ago? 500? 1,000? How about over 2,000? Yep, that’s right. Check out this article to learn the early origins of these incredibly useful tools.

Glasses have become pretty standard fare for a lot of individuals. It is estimated that 75% of the US population requires some sort of vision correction. Can you imagine what life would be like if that many people couldn’t see properly? Thankfully, the invention of modern-day corrective lenses began many centuries ago.

Magnifying Spheres

The earliest iteration of corrective lenses is commonly traced back to Ancient Rome, where philosopher Seneca the Younger brought spheres of glass and jewels for Emperor Nero to use for magnification. It was discovered that concave lenses could be used to enhance and enlarge small objects such as letters or organisms. Surprisingly, however, it took nearly a millennium for this early discovery to evolve into a more sophisticated design.

During the Renaissance, European inventors stumbled upon the writings of Muslim mathematician and scientist Alhazen which described the properties of convex lenses. Research and development began to take hold, and, in 1286, Italian friar Dominican Giordano da Pisa created what is believed to be the world’s first pair of eyeglasses. These were designed to be held in front of the face or perched on the nose.

Eyeglasses Continue to Evolve

Because the materials initially used to make eyeglasses were so expensive (e.g. crystal, leather, animal horns), they were largely only available to the wealthy. However, as literacy rates began to boom in the 15th century, demand for more affordable glasses quickly grew. The lenses shifted to being made out of glass, which was able to be manipulated to serve a greater spectrum of near/farsightedness needs.

The next (and debatably most useful) development in eyeglasses was becoming hands-free in the 18th century as they gained support to be held over the ears. Soon after, Benjamin Franklin introduced the concept of bifocals, and George Airy created lenses that would correct astigmatism. Then, as the Industrial Revolution greatly improved manufacturing processes, eyeglasses finally began to be available to nearly everyone.

Lighter, Cheaper, and More Convenient

Over time, eyeglasses continued to become lighter and cheaper with both frames and lenses able to be made from plastic. Protective coatings were also added to reduce glare and UV light for the wearer. Today, eyeglasses can be customized to help correct vision impairments all over the spectrum.

In recent years, we have also seen the contact industry take off, allowing an even more hands-free version of corrective lenses that are more convenient for many individuals. First made from glass in 1887, these “in-eyeglasses” went through about a century of development until they reached the soft gel versions that are most commonly worn today. Ironically, after thousands of years of experimentation, it seems that contacts are the most similar to the original magnifying spheres of glass.

It’s no question that the invention of corrective lenses made a huge impact on the world. We at Custom Powder Systems love to see how technology develops over time. If you have a game-changing idea that you’d like to bring to life, let us know how we can help!

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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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Blended Romance: How Custom Powder Systems Came to Be

“I don’t know how many times my boss introduced us… He really only needed to introduce us once,” recalls Denise on meeting Dale “Mac” McIntosh. The two had been working in the plant food industry and, if opposites do attract, Denise and Mac soon figured out how to blend their different personalities.

“She’s my alter-ego,” says Mac. “She’s a logical, deep-thinker, and I’m more of a visionary ‘let’s get it done’ type.” Something that may have caused a clash in other couples worked as a catalyst to bring these two together. One could see the big picture while the other worked out the details. They knew they had a “big picture” future together, but nobody else did yet.

Is Denise There?

Mac and Denise’s skills extend past their business knowledge. If you need something to be kept secret, they’re your people. They successfully spent seven years quitely living together until one morning the phone rang:

“Hello?” said Mac, answering Denise’s phone. 

“Is Denise there?” replied the voice on the other end.

“Not right now.”

Denise Mac Belize 1


Mac then explained to their mutual friend that they had been “meaning” to tell him the two were a couple and today, he supposed, was as good a day as any. “Oh, and by the way, we’re getting married in six months.”

Around this time, Mac and two of his co-workers, Scott Heffern and Bob Luebbe, had been discussing the idea of going into business together. As they sat around the table, Denise finally jumped in and said “I want in.” This took Mac by surprise, as the idea of having his life-partner also be his business partner hadn’t crossed his mind. 

But to Denise, it made perfect sense. “My theory is: I’ve worked with crazy people over the years, and there comes a point where you have to decide ‘am I going to work with known crazy, or unknown crazy?’ and at least I know these guys. And I have experience there.”

The Best Place We’ve Ever Worked

Nobody had yet taken the idea of bulk material handling and systemized it. The pieces were all out there, but no company had yet excelled at bringing it all together. There needed to be a turn-key solution for the powder handling industry, whether it was food or pharmaceutical. They quickly saw there was an opportunity to develop the equipment and systems to take a project from raw materials to a packaged product. But their new company needed one more thing…

“The overriding principle,” explains Mac, “was ‘let’s make this a place where we can all participate and really enjoy working, enjoy coming to work every day, and do something special for not only the employees, but provide something unique to the marketplace.’” 

Denise adds, “Our whole premise was to start a company that was A) the best place we’d ever worked, and B) hopefully make it the best place our employees have ever worked.”

Relationships Build Businesses

Denise and Mac booth

While the story began as the spark of a relationship between Denise and Mac, the business continues to be successful because of their relationships with customers. Over 80% of the companies they do business with today are repeat customers. “As our company moves into its next phase,” adds Mac, “Denise and I couldn’t be happier that Bob Luebbe is at the helm as president. He was there at the beginning of the relationships with our clients, and I know in my heart those clients will be treated exactly how we would treat them.” 

Strong relationships have also accounted for happy, loyal employees. Some have, occasionally, gone on to other opportunities, but Denise and Mac let them know the door will always be open for them to come back. One “temporary” former employee was back within forty-eight hours. That speaks to the kind of care the McIntosh’s take with their employees and shows the fulfillment of their goal to make Custom Powder Systems “the best place anybody has ever worked.”

Sixteen Years and More to Come

Custom Powder Systems continues to be a resource for any industry dealing in bulk powder and containment, from pharmaceutical companies like Pfizer to food production like Pepperidge Farms.

As the industry continues to expand, so do the skills of our team. You’ll find our solutions in pharmaceutical plants in China and in the oil fields of Qatar. No matter what shape they take, our goal is to solve interesting problems and help make companies more efficient. Everytime you’re faced with a challenge is another chance for us to excel at what we do best.

We’d love to be a part of your story… and have you as a part of ours. What can we invent for you today?

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