MISTAKES THAT WORKED:  40 Familiar Inventions and How They Came to Be

Remember the Three Princes of Serendip who went out looking for treasure?  They didn’t find what they were looking for, but they kept finding things just as valuable.  That’s serendipity…George W. Merck

     Did you know that aspirin came from the bark or leaves of a willow tree, and has been used since 400 B.C?  or that penicillin began as an accident in a petri dish?  Or that if you put together an empty pie tin with a group of college boys you might get a new sport called Frisbee?  Or that the 3M Company was trying to invent a super strong adhesive, but came up with a super weak one, that’s now used on Post-It notes?       You will find all of those things plus much more in Charlotte Foltz Jones book of serendipity.  To elaborate on that idea, a scientist must have a prepared mind to perceive the value in an accident.  Otherwise, it is just that—an accident.  But the mark of a great scientist or engineer is if the lightbulb goes off in their head, and they realize the accidental discovery has value in solving a problem.  It might be as simple as a bored college student, or as complex as engineering adhesives.  It is quite amazing to me that there could be so many “happy accidents” that have change our world for the better. 

     Engineering attempts to get the best solution to a problem.  Sometimes the best solution is an invention.  Often they are equated, but the processes involved can be quite different.  This is an important distinction to share with your children or students.       I think I have gotten too serious for this entertaining book.  Kids will find it amazing, interesting and amusing.  The illustrator, John O’Brien, adds to the fun with his playful illustrations.  You can find the treasure on Amazon, Barnes and Noble, or Books A Million.

Jones, Charlotte Foltz., and John O’Brien. Mistakes That Worked: 40 Familiar Inventions and How They Came to Be. Delacorte, 2013.  ISBN-10: 9780385320436  ISBN-13: 978-0385320436


3-5-ETS1-3 Engineering Design

Plan and carry out fair tests in which variables are controlled and failure points are considered to identify aspects of a model or prototype that can be improved.

Grade:  3-5

MS-ETS1-1 Engineering Design

Define the criteria and constraints of a design problem with sufficient precision to ensure a successful solution, taking into account relevant scientific principles and potential impacts on people and the natural environment that may limit possible solutions.

Grade:  Middle School (6-8)