Monday, August 4, 2008

When is a Failure Not a Failure?

August 5th is National Failures Day. (Or, it may be August 15th. I found it listed for both dates.) When I found this little-known holiday, I thought, Do we really need a day to point out failures? Honestly? After all, it seems a fairly depressing holiday. I mean, who wants to celebrate their failures? 

But, hold on a minute! Maybe we do have something to celebrate, after all. Yes, I said celebrate. Consider the following quotes:

"Failure is the enemy of efficiency, but it's the best way to learn."
- Robert E. Gunther, consultant in Conshohocken, PA

"Failure is the preamble to success. Most efforts don't work. If you persist, you'll eventually figure it out."
- Dr. Thomas Fogarty, Doctor-Inventor of medical devices

My point - and I do have one - is that our lives would not be the same were it not for several "failures." Take the Harry Potter book series. Unless you've been living under a rock for the last 10 years, you'll recognize the name: protagonist of the wildly popular novel series loved by both kids and adults, written by J.K. Rowling. This seven book series has, as of June 2008, sold over 400 million copies. It has made J.K. Rowling the highest earning novelist in history. And yet, the first agent she approached turned it down flat, and the second had to shop it for a year to several publishers (I found various counts between 8-12, but J.K. Rowling's official site only says "several") before it was finally picked up by Bloomsbury, a small British publishing house in London, England. Imagine if she'd given up...

And so, in honor of National Failures Day, I give you:

Five Serendipitous "Failures" or "Accidents"

1. "What walks down stairs, alone or in pairs, and makes a slinkety sound? A spring, a spring, a marvelous thing. Everyone knows it's Slinky... It's Slinky, it's Slinky, for fun it's a wonderful toy. It's Slinky, it's Slinky, it's fun for a girl and a boy." Now that that song is stuck in your head, do you know how this most marvelous toy came to be? Back in 1943, naval engineer Richard James puzzled over how to design a meter to monitor horsepower on naval battleships. When he dropped one of the tension springs he was using, he noticed how it kept moving after it hit the ground. He went home and told his wife about the idea that came to him as he watched the bouncing spring. Slinky made its debut in Philadelphia, PA two years later, during Christmas season. The rest is history.

2. Do you ever ponder over how those corn flakes came to be in your bowl this morning? I mean, besides the obvious I-poured-them-in-there? Well, it seems that in the late 1800's, in Battle Creek, Michigan, the Kellogg brothers ran a sanatorium - a combination health spa/hospital for the "elite and famous." They wanted to provide something more tasty for breakfast than the bland bread already offered, and so experimented with boiled wheat that they ran through rollers to create long sheets of wheat. (I know. Sounds so much tastier, doesn't it?) But, Fate stepped in when they were called away from their experiment one day before the boiled wheat could be rolled. So, it was left to air dry the rest of the day. When they returned, they still put the wheat through the rollers, and it came out as flakes, which they baked. One thing led to another, and voila! You've got your Corn Flakes, and everybody's happy (and full).

3. Would you give little kids a wad of wallpaper cleaner to play with? Maybe not. But, if it wasn't for Noah McVicker and his nephew Joseph McVicker, and their creation of a non-toxic, putty-like substance meant to be used as wallpaper cleaner, millions of kids would never know the joys of Play-Doh. Joseph's sister-in-law, a kindergarten teacher, began giving it to her students to use as modeling compound for art projects, since it was softer and neater than clay. In 1955, Noah and Joseph McVicker called it Play-Doh, and marketed it through their newly formed company Rainbow Crafts. By age 27, Joe McVicker was a millionaire, and to this day, the recipe for the original Play-Doh remains a trade secret.

4. Whadda ya do when the guy in the ice cream booth next to you runs out of bowls? Improvise! That's just what Ernest Hamwi did at the 1904 St. Louis World's Fair. He ran a waffle booth, and when the ice cream vendor next door had a small crisis of the container variety, Ernest saved the day. He rolled a waffle in a cone shape, the ice cream was deposited inside, and (oh, thank goodness!) the ice cream cone was born. *(It seems there is some haziness as to the actual person who invented this wonderful treat, as most historians say that more than likely there were over fifty ice cream cone stands at that fair. Some sites say the ice cream cone - in paper or metal form - had already been in existence over in Europe before then. This is just one of several stories out there. Do a Google search on "history of ice cream cones" and you'll see what I mean.)

5. Do you ever think about who (or is it whom?) to thank for the convenient Band-Aid you just put on that cut on your finger? (No, I don't mean your mom, or the Band-Aid box, or the medicine cabinet...) The person you want to thank is Earle Dickson, who was a cotton buyer for Johnson and Johnson in 1921. See, his wife Josephine was always cutting her fingers in the kitchen during meal prep. What concerned him was that the bandages of the time - two-piece affairs consisting of a piece of gauze and a piece of adhesive tape you had to cut to size and assemble yourself - didn't stick well, and would slide off as she worked. Well, Earle decided to invent something to fix that. He placed a piece of gauze on the adhesive side of the center of a pre-cut piece of tape, then covered the gauze with a piece of crinoline to keep it sterile. Well, that little inspired piece of work caught the attention of his boss, James Johnson. Pretty soon, Johnson & Johnson was manufacturing Band-Aids, and Earle Dickson was promoted to vice-president.

And, there you go. 

National Failures Day? 

I guess it's all in how you look at things...


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