In 1903, Edouard Benedictus was working in his laboratory, he needed a glass jar from the top shelf so he climbed the ladder.
On the way up he knocked off a glass jar from a lower shelf, it hit the floor and broke.
But the strange thing was, the glass jar held its shape.
Although it was broken, the pieces stayed in the shape of the jar.
Benedictus’s assistant had used the glass the previous day, but he hadn’t cleaned it.
The inside was coated with the residue of the mixture: cellulose nitrate, or liquid plastic.
It evaporated and coated the glass in a transparent film no one could see.
Benedictus had been reading in a newspaper about the new invention of motor cars.
People were dying in car-crashes when they went through the windshield and the glass shards sliced their heads off.
In 1909, Benedictus patented his discovery as safety glass.
But no one was interested until World War One, when the army began using his glass as eyepieces for gasmasks.
Henry Ford saw the possibility and by 1929 safety glass was a standard feature on every Ford car made.
Today, every car made anywhere in the world features Benedictus’s accidental discovery.
In 1879, at John Hopkins University, Constantine Fahlberg was experimenting with a coal-tar derivative, benzoic sulfimide.
Like Benedictus’s assistant he was lazy, he forgot to wash his hands.
That evening at dinner he ate a bread roll.
The roll was amazingly sweet although it had nothing on it, not even butter.
Fahlberg couldn’t work it out until he licked his fingers.
Then he tasted the sweetness and it was obvious, it was the benzoic sulfimide he’d been working with that day.
In 1886 Fahlberg patented it, but again there was no interest until World War One, when it was used as a substitute for sugar, which was in short supply.
That was the main use for it until the 1950s when, for the first time in history, it became fashionable for ordinary people to lose weight.
Fahlberg’s accident was known as saccharine, the foundation for the entire dieting industry.
In 1946, Percy Spencer was an engineer at Raytheon working on military applications for the radar magnetron.
While he was experimenting, he felt a gooey mess in his pocket, the chocolate bar he had in there had melted.
The radar magnetron had been producing microwaves, and they heated the chocolate.
Spencer had accidentally invented the microwave oven.
In 1955 it was launched as Radarange, it weighed hundreds of pounds and was a flop.
In 1967, a smaller version was launched, food was packaged to be microwaved and in five years there were a million in use, today Spencer’s accident is in 90% of American homes.
So, accidents can be creative, but what use is that to us?
John Webster always said you have to be open to fortunate accidents along the way.
He told me: “Your problem is, your ad’s as good as it’s ever going to get at script stage, you don’t leave any room for lucky accidents.”
He was right, I get locked-off into delivering exactly what I’ve written down.
Fair enough, I’m a copywriter, logic and communication is my job.
But John was an art director, and he saw his job as sprinkling stardust on the logic.
John always looked at accidents for what they added to the idea.
A mis-briefed voice-over, unexpected music, the wrong location, a casting mistake.
Something unexpected that took the idea in a whole new direction.
John’s way of thinking reminds me of what Orson Wells said: “Don’t give them what they want. Give them what they never dreamed was possible”