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“What if we…” Happy Accidents, the Moscow Mule and More

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The story of the Moscow Mule and its iconic copper mugs is one of the best known incidents of serendipity in popular culture. If you’re still unfamiliar with it though, the story goes like this:

It was just another lazy wartime afternoon on Sunset Boulevard in LA. At the Cock’n Bull Pub owner Jack Morgan was passing time talking with a friend of his, a certain John Martin. Martin though was no ordinary bar fly. He was the owner of Smirnoff vodka and the subject of his conversation with Morgan was more than a little self-serving: he was looking for some way he could get hesitant Americans to drink more vodka.

Martin’s problem reminded Morgan of his own dilemma because the Cock’n Bull produced a house brand of ginger beer that was going nowhere fast. At some point during the conversation a lightbulb went off over someone’s head (exactly who’s is a hotly debated subject) and the Moscow Mule was born, bringing together Martin’s vodka and Morgan’s ginger beer.

Enter Ye Olde Copper Mugs

Martin, being an experienced marketer, understood that he was going to need a gimmick to make the new cocktail stick in people’s craws. He thought about introducing additional ingredients and such but finally settled on the idea of giving it its own distinctive delivery vessel; like the martini has the martini glass. But what? Turns out Morgan’s girlfriend knew someone who made and sold copper mugs and when she mentioned this everyone knew they had a hit. The rest, as they say, is history.

Serendipity and Culture

The Moscow Mule is one well-known example of the power of serendipity to create cultural touchstones. But are there any other cases where an auspicious coincidence or happy accident resulted in something that we’ve come to use or rely on in our daily lives? There sure are and here are a few of them:

  • Post-it Notes - A chemist working for 3M company in 1968 was experimenting with sticky stuff. One day he developed an adhesive that was strong enough to hold a piece of paper to a surface but not so strong that the paper would tear when it was removed. The chemist, Spencer Silver, looked at a number of possible applications for his new adhesive but couldn’t come up with anything. After putting it aside a colleague realized it would be perfect for holding bookmarks in place. The bookmark idea quickly morphed into the post-it note and the rest is office supply history.

  • Safety Glass - As the modern age gained steam at the turn of the 20th century safety experts were concerned because, as glass use became more prevalent, injuries and even deaths from glass-related accidents were soaring. In 1909 Édouard Bénédictus, a French chemist, knocked a beaker that had recently contained cellulose nitrate to the floor of his lab by accident. To his astonishment the beaker didn’t break into a thousand dangerous shards but held itself together; cracked, but intact. This accident marked the birth of safety glass.

  • Stainless Steel - Everyone loves a nice set of stainless steel cutlery but the next time you lift your stainless steel knife to cut that steak remember that it’s an accidental product. Harry Brearly was a British metallurgist who, in the days prior to WWI, had been tapped by the War Department to come up with a gun barrel that wouldn’t rust. He decided to add chromium to various metals to see what happened. After adding chromium to carbon steel he tried to etch the surface in order to run more tests. He found however that the new surface was highly resistant to etching and rusting and called his new alloy “rustless steel”. Shortly thereafter he realized it would be perfect for cutlery as an inexpensive alternative to sterling silver.

  • The Little Blue Pill - Last but not least we give you Viagra. Viagra is the best-selling drug in the world today which means there are countless men out there thanking their lucky stars (and likely an equal number of women wishing this particular genie had been left in the bottle). But what does Viagra have to do with serendipity? Well, as it turns out Viagra - or as the science types say Sildenafil Citrate - was never intended to help guys ramp up the frisky. It was instead being tested as a medicine that might possible help people with heart disease. It wasn’t long however, before researchers noticed its “other” benefits. One thing led to another and today we have the world’s most popular drug.

While the invention of the Moscow Mule was indeed serendipitous it’s far from the only example of something we now take for granted coming about by happy accident. Next time you’re polishing up your copper Mule mugs getting ready for the big barbecue remember: all it takes to generate change sometimes is a willingness to think outside the box.

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