April 19, 2018 | Reid Kerr-Keller

10 Inventions That Were Made by Mistake

Some say that necessity is the mother of invention. And they may be right. There's few things more motivated than a tinkerer trying to solve a problem staring them right in the face.

But there's another side to the creative process that doesn't seem to get as much play. Luck, mistakes, and serendipity. The stuff we just can't control.

In his book How We Got to Now, Steven Johnson writes about what he calls "The Hummingbird Theory of Invention." It goes like this: according to Johnson, most inventors don't really work alone. As much as we like to share the stories of guys like Tesla tinkering in their basement, it's rarely the whole truth. More often the raw ideas that lead to an invention (like, say, electricity) are worked on by lots of people at once. And the discoveries begin to build on one another, until a final breakthrough.

It's interesting we don't talk much about that side of innovation. Maybe we're too attached to the idea of control. After all, we're a species that's succeeded by harnessing the power of the natural world. Making fire and electricity work for us is a perfect example of human ingenuity. So perhaps it's not wonder we don't like to think about just how much we owe to lady luck.

On the other hand, though, there are those who embrace the idea whole-heartedly. Steve Jobs, before his death, made a point of designing Pixar headquarters to encourage random encounters. That's because Jobs believed that creativity happens when different viewpoints collide. The bathrooms in Pixar HQ are on opposite sides of the building-- totally inconvenient. Some workers have to walk up to 10 minutes for a pee. But the result is all sorts of surprise encounters, between people across the company. Engineers meeting directors. Coders bumping into marketing folks. In Jobs' head, it was all part of making ideas happen. And it seems like he had a good point: Pixar is one of the most successful animation studios on the planet.

Hence the inspiration for this video. We're taking a little time out to honour the screw-ups that led to history. We can only imagine the guy who worked out fire (probably by starting one accidentally) is saying thank you for the grave.  To all the clumsy geniuses: we salute you.

Thanks for watching.


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