Unintended, intended consequences

Paul Squires
4 min readApr 6, 2023

As a child of the 80s, there were a few universal fears that were driven into us through news, television ads and information films, and sensationalist chatter in the playground. They included the possible threat of global nuclear war (a product of the Cold War), the rather abstract fear of being swallowed up by quicksand, and chip pan fires.

Chip pans were, by far, the most popular way to domestically cook potato chips at the time. They involved cooking chips in a pan of boiling fat. The pan required constant attention, to avoid the pan spitting fat all over the place and to avoid the fat from getting so hot that it caught fire.

In fact, chip pans were so vulnerable to a dangerous situation occuring that they required constant — and I mean constant - attention. They were so dangerous that in 1981, chip pan fires accounted for 31% of all accidental domestic fires in the UK.

Here is a public information film from the 1970s, from the UK Government, reminding people to never leave a hot chip pan unattended. Even now, because chip pans were one of The 1980s Childhood Fears, I know that a chip pan fire can be quashed through throwing a damp tea-towel onto it.

You may have never consumed chips cooked from a chip pan. In fact, if you’re under (say) 35, then it’s likely that not only have you never consumed chip-pan chips, but your parents never even owned a pan to cook chips in this way.

Now, of course, chip pans and chip pan fires are rare.

There are two reasons behind this; one being perhaps less obvious than the other.

The first is the increasing accessibility of the smoke alarm, from the early 90s. Smoke alarms are cheap and effective, and they are now mandatory in all new-build and rental properties in the UK. They are now woven into our behavioural fabric; if you move into property that doesn’t have one, then a smoke alarm is likely to be top of your shopping list.

The second reason for the now-obscurity of chip pans is perhaps more abstract. Here is a clue, in a TV ad from 1979.

The rather archaic “European chef” personality in the ad is showing something that, in the late 1970s, was revolutionary. Oven chips required no fat, no chip pans — nothing except a baking tray. Initially, they were slow to sell, because people felt that chip-pan chips were tastier. But, as McCain and other manufacturers developed better-tasting oven chips, it was pretty obvious that the fact that they were easier to cook absolutely eclipsed the complexity and threat that chip pan cooking offered.

Because oven chips just required “shoving in the oven”, there was no tuition to offer, and there were no risks (perhaps apart from leaving them in the oven for too long). A teenager can cook oven chips, whereas a parent might be very nervous about them trying to cook with a chip pan.

The UK Government acknowledged the role of oven chips, in a report entitled Focus on trends in fires and fire- related fatalities from 2017:

In 1994, chip pan fires accounted for 20 per cent of accidental dwelling fires. […]
Changing cooking habits, ‘the rise of the oven chip’ and preventative work by FRSs [Fire and rescue services] have reduced the use of chip pans in homes.

In short, this massive reduction of chip pan fires has been caused by smoke alarms to reactively alert of fire, but also of oven chips to prevent them in the first place. Such is the effect of this two-pronged innovation that chip pan fires now account for just 0.41% of domestic fires in the UK.

The upshot is that while oven chips may have been promoted as a convenience offer, their contribution to the reduction in domestic fire cannot be overstated. And, of course, they’re yummy.

I’m sure that this massive safety advantage was part of the development cycle as they were being created. It’s no mere accident, like 3M’s Post-It notes (an accidental creation based on an adhesive that stuck to surfaces without permanence) or Alexander Fleming’s discovery of Penicillin (an accidental discovery based on a fungus killing scientific cultures while being on vacation). But, there’s perhaps an unintended intended consequence of oven chips that go way beyond the surface advantages that they offer.

When developing products, of course they need to fulfil a tactical and/or strategic purpose, and ideally solve a real-life problem. But, there may be more lateral, more creative problems that a given product might solve beyond such tightly-defined needs. And, those solutions might really help a given group of people beyond your identified customer base, in ways that might initially seem abstract or surplus to the business case.

Not all products solve just one problem. It’s up to you to think about where and how those problems exist, who owns them, and what your product can truly be capable of.

PS: Thanks for reading. Now that you have got to the end, please don’t forget to test your smoke alarm today. This blog post continues in part 2.



Paul Squires

Founder @imperica @pereramedia / Strategist @ibminteractive / Chair @furtherfield. Digital, media, art, politics, environment, culture, ephemera.