1 – DUCT TAPE
When it comes to home repairs, every successful handyman uses the same approach: they start out by using the right tools, and when that fails, duct tape. But there’s a great story behind duct tape – a story with roots in the most devasting conflict in human history, World War II.
During the war, American soldiers lacked a strong, waterproof tape to keep their ammunition cases free from moisture and dirt.
The solution was delivered by Johnson & Johnson. The firm modified a tape that was then being used in the medical field. The result was a three-layered tape made up of polyethylene (the most common plastic in use today), plain woven cotton fabric (referred to in the textile industry as “duck cloth”), and a rubber-based adhesive.
The tape performed better than anyone expected. Besides being waterproof, it was also very strong, yet paradoxically, tearing off strips was easy. As the story goes, the tape was given the nickname “duck tape,” either referring to the name of the inner fabric or because its waterproof characteristics were reminiscent of a duck’s feathers.
Then, in the post-war 1950s, the US enjoyed a construction boom that employed many of the returning soldiers, who continued to use their strong, reliable friend from the war. The tape was often used to wrap ventilation and air conditioning shafts – also called “ducts” – and therein lies the origin of the name commonly used in the US today.
Bonus info: While the US refers to it as “duct tape,” in the UK it is more commonly called “gaffer tape” – a name which comes from the English term for the chief lighting technician and head of the electrical department on a film set, the gaffer. As the name suggests, the tape became a staple of the industry after the war before making its way into general housekeeping equipment and making handymen of us all.
2 THE TV DINNER
The TV dinner concept might not have reached the same level of success in Europe as it did in the US, and making a habit of eating processed food in front of the TV impacts our health, traditional family values and important social faculties such as the ability to make small talk, but the TV dinner nonetheless remains an idea that has multiple innovative angles, and moreover, it is a product that sells (2018: $19 billion).
TV dinners were first inspired by airplane food, which makes sense when you think about it. It all started with Maxson Food Systems, the company that invented airplane food during WWII as an alternative to the sandwiches that were typically served on board.
By 1949, frozen dinners on aluminum trays were supposedly being sold in the Pittsburgh area. But it was a massive advertising campaign in 1954, spearheaded by the Swanson brothers, that first aroused the enormous American appetite for TV dinners. Or so the story goes. Apparently, there was a stocking error at the brothers’ warehouse that resulted in over 200 tons of leftover turkey. Luckily, Gerry Thomas, a Swanson company salesman, had just returned from a visit to Pan American Airways. He had a flash of inspiration and the rest, if you believe this version of the story, is history.
Others, however, believe that Clarence Birdseye, who created a system for packing and flash-freezing meals back in the 1920s, should get credit for the idea.
Whatever its origin story may be, the TV dinner was undoubtedly a perfectly timed success. It appeared on the American market just as freezers and televisions began to make their way into the average family home. Then, during the 1980s and 90s, the microwave oven radiated onto the scene, and the industry of convenience food really began to heat up.
3 – THE MICROWAVE OVEN
The microwave oven has its origin, like so many other innovative ideas, in a chance event – a random incident that happened to the right person at the right time. Don’t forget that the idea – that spark of inspiration – is just the start of the innovation process. The most important part is to actively develop and apply that idea so that it leads to something concrete and, of course, marketable.
This was exactly what Percy Spence did in 1945. Spence happened to have a chocolate bar in his pocket as he passed by a radar system at his workplace – the weapons and electronics company, Raytheon. To his astonishment, the chocolate bar began to melt, and he began to wonder.
Percy Spence then took a bag of popcorn to the radar system. As the kernels started to pop, the idea for the microwave oven was born. Spence found out that the radar system sent out microwaves at a frequency of 2.5 gigahertz, and that water, fat and carbohydrates react to microwaves at about that frequency.
His experiments may sound a bit dangerous – exposure to microwave radiation can result in painful burns – but it wasn’t until someone attempted to cook an egg that things went wrong. “To have egg on one’s face” was not just an idiom that day.
Spence discovered that he could efficiently harness the microwave energy by confining it to a metal box – from which the energy wasn’t able to escape. When food was placed inside the box, the temperature rapidly increased.
Finally, in 1947, Spence and Raytheon built the first microwave oven – called the “Radarange” – for commercial use. The microwave oven’s journey to mainstream success was, however, long and meandering. The first version was 1.8 meters tall (5.9 feet), weighed 340 kilos (750 pounds) and cost $5,000 (approximately $55,000 in today’s values). These early versions were, for obvious reasons, only used by large restaurants, cruise ships, etc.
Decades passed by before the microwave oven became a product that everyone owned. In 1971, just one percent of the US population owned a microwave oven. By 1986, it was 25 percent. And in 1997, 90 percent of American households had the appliance.
At this point the synergy between the TV dinner and the microwave oven began to drive sales beyond what anyone had anticipated. To make a quick TV dinner, you needed a microwave oven. And if you owned a microwave oven, it suddenly became very tempting to just make a quick TV dinner.
4 – OSTOMY BAG
The invention of the ostomy bag is a slice of innovation as simple as it is brilliant. And for us Danes, it remains a source of national inspiration to this day!
Ostomy surgery, commonly associated with colostomies, ileostomies, and urostomies, is a life-saving procedure that allows bodily waste to pass through a surgically created stoma (an artificial opening) on the abdomen.
The first known colostomy operation was performed in 1776 by a French surgeon, Dr. Pillore. The patient, a Mrs. Morel, survived another 45 years, but we can only speculate as to her quality of life – there is no record of how she coped with the stoma’s discharge.
For nearly two centuries thereafter, patients who survived the procedure suffered terribly. The prospects for anyone undergoing the operation were grim – sedation methods of the time left much to be desired and antibiotics, though discovered in 1928, were not widely available before penicillin entered mass production towards the end of World War II.
It was an enormously difficult procedure, and many patients did not make it off the operating table, and those that did were plagued by infections and the life-long problem of discharge from their stomas, yet ostomy surgery continued. Then, in 1954, a clever Danish nurse came up with a brilliant idea. The idea is so simple that to all of us today, who enjoy the benefit of hindsight, it seems too obvious to warrant a second thought – but it changed the lives of countless ostomy patients worldwide. Moreover, the idea led to one of Denmark’s greatest corporate success stories: the company Coloplast, which today employs some 7,400 people.
The idea was this: take a freezer bag, cut a hole in it, and apply adhesive.
When it comes to an innovative idea that can improve the lives of millions of people, and earn billions in revenue, sometimes that’s all it takes
But the days of foul-smelling, waste-saturated bandages were not quite over yet. Another nurse had a contribution to make before mass production was set in motion. And even then, a lot still had to happen before the ostomy bag became what it is today.
Elsewhere in Denmark, a man named Aage Louis-Hansen owned a company called Dansk Plastik Emballage, which had achieved great success by developing an innovative method to completely seal plastic packaging. He had never produced anything for the medical industry and was skeptical when Elise Sørensen pitched the idea of mass production of the ostomy bag.
Enter the second nurse: Aage Louis-Hansen’s wife. She could see the potential and convinced her husband to draft a franchise agreement with Elise Sørensen. The first thousand bags were produced shortly thereafter, and the ostomy bag was a resounding success from the start. In 1957 Aage Louis-Hansen established Coloplast.
Bonus info: The creator of the ostomy bag, Elise Sørensen, was motivated by both professional and personal circumstances. After her 32-year-old sister underwent surgery for cancer, she served as a daily reminder of the misery that patients endured once they left the hospital.
5 – THE POST-IT NOTE
The ostomy bag is a relatively simple invention, as is duct tape. Neither, however, surpasses the next innovation when it comes to simplicity: the humble Post-it Note.
The history behind this innovation is almost incredible. But what follows is a true story about a product that no one imagined could be useful.
The birth of the Post-it was a protracted and laborious one – 12 years from conception until a product finally became available to consumers. And it all started in 1968.
Chemist Spencer Silver worked for the company 3M on development of a new glue. At that time, the goal was solely to develop a stronger, more robust adhesive.
He failed at that. Instead, he had developed a glue that was not particularly strong, but its composition made it possible to remove and attach it several times without leaving a trace of the adhesive.
Silver spent years enthusiastically searching for an application for his new glue. His colleagues, however, didn’t share his zeal. 3M was in the business of producing industrial super glue, so what good was a weak glue?
Undeterred, Silver continued, and was so tenacious in pitching his idea that he received the nickname “Mr. Persistent” at 3M. His doggedness, however, got him nowhere, and Mr. Persistent had to put the project aside. Not forgotten, just on hold.
Years passed without any use for the new glue. That is, until another scientist at 3M, Art Fry, suddenly faced a challenge of, well, biblical proportions.
Art Fry practiced weekly in a church choir that sang during service. He routinely used small, loose pieces of paper to mark the songs they were going to sing in his psalm book. However, the papers kept falling out.
He needed an adhesive piece of paper with a glue that didn’t leave any marks in the books. Art remembered Mr. Persistent – his colleague who never stopped talking about his glue that would solve that exact problem. He later described that moment of realizing the glue’s potential as “the one where you get the adrenaline rush.”
Art Fry realized that it was not only a great adhesive bookmark, but perfect for leaving notes. The potential was clear. Fry and Silver began posting notes everywhere – for each other and the development team assigned to get the product ready for market. It became a new way of communication within the team.
At the beginning of 1980, after many market tests, Silver, Fry and their team finally had a product that was ready for market.
The Post-it Note was born – and quickly became a huge, worldwide success.
Bonus info: Fry and Silver did not become incredibly wealthy from their product, but they have expressed great satisfaction with their respective careers at 3M, where they stayed until they retired.
The above-mentioned examples prove that innovations can have their origins in a spectacularly wide range of largely accidental situations. Certainly, most of them do not come from R&D departments or problem-solving meetings.
In some of the cases, the odds were heavily stacked against the innovation ever reaching its full potential. But common to every success story is a persistent individual. Without these relentless personalities, many of these ideas would probably have remained just that – ideas.
The courses of action taken by these innovators reveal that their innovations became successful not because of the circumstances at the time, but despite them.
People who are innovative will inevitably meet with a degree of resistance. The idea may even be enthusiastically received. But what about real support in developing it? Real cooperation towards realizing the idea? Many organizations fall behind because of their failure, if not to recognize, then to support innovative ideas. And the reason is often no more than an excuse: “Now is not a good time. We have too many tasks.”
If you want your organization to successfully deliver innovation after innovation, you have to create an innovation culture – an atmosphere where positive conflict and friction are harnessed to create a breeding ground for weird and wonderful ideas that ultimately lead to remarkable innovations.
Find even more inspiration here: