Many scientists and inventors give away years out of their lives in pursuit of their goals. Though sometimes, many great things happen by pure chance. Here are 10 inventions and discoveries that were not the result of a dedicated pursuit but accidents.
Saccharin was accidently discovered by Constantine Fahlberg in 1879 while working in the lab. While eating dinner, Fahlberg noticed that the bread he was eating tasted sweeter than normal. He realized that he must have spilled some chemical on himself and forgot to wash his hands. He tasted various chemicals he had been working and traced the sweetness back to the chemical, later named saccharin.
During the late 1800s, nitroglycerin and gunpowder were used for mining and other explosive purposes. The problem was that gunpowder was not strong enough and nitroglycerin was highly unstable and could be triggered by sudden changes in motion, friction, and temperature. Alfred Nobel who owned a nitroglycerin factory decided to make it safer. One day while experimenting he accidently dropped a vial of nitroglycerin on the ground but it didn’t explode. He noticed that it fell on sawdust mixed with diatomaceous earth and got absorbed. He later patented this safer explosive as dynamite.
DuringWorld War II, Percy Spencer was working at Raytheon Company labs. While inspecting a magnetron from an active radar set he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. Fascinated, he repeated the experiment by making popcorn from corn and later on an egg which exploded. Spencer then created a high-density electromagnetic field by trapping microwave from a magnetron into a metal box. When food was placed in the box with the microwave energy, the temperature of the food rose rapidly thus inventing the very first microwave oven.
The researchers Simon Campbell and David Roberts were working with Pfizer on a new drug to treat high blood pressure and a heart condition called angina. The human clinical trials were started but the drug, then named UK-92480, didn’t show promising results. However, the male patients part of the trial reported getting erections after taking the drug. Pfizer then later re-released it under the name Viagra(sildenafil citrate) for the treatment of erectile dysfunction.
Wilson Greatbatch was creating a machine that could treat ‘heart block,’ a condition in which a heart does not receive messages from surrounding nerves to pump blood correctly. While building an oscillator to record heart beats he accidently used an incorrect resistor. The resulting device produced rhythmic pulses similar to the heartbeat. He fine tuned it for two years and created the first implantable pacemaker.
Alexander Fleming was a bacteriologist who was looking for ways to destroy bacteria. After returning from a two-week vacation he noticed that his bacteria cultures were growing some mysterious mold. He observed that the mold was surrounded by a jelly-like substance that was killing the bacteria. He isolated the compound but it was difficult to produce on a large scale so he gave up. After many years Howard Florey and Ernst Chain started experimenting with Penicillin and were able to mass produce it.
Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was experimenting on cathode ray tube which he had covered with black cardboard to block the distracting glow caused by electrons striking the tube’s glass walls. From the corner of his eye, he noticed that a fluorescent screen more than a meter away was also glowing. Hey name the mysterious rays X-rays and tried to block them with a variety of materials without any success. He finally managed to block them with a block of lead but his own flesh glowing around his bones on the fluorescent screen behind his hand. He then placed photographic film between his hand and the screen and captured the world’s first X-ray image.
3. Safety Glass
Édouard Bénédictus accidently invented the safety glass or laminated safety glass. One day while working in his lab he accidently dropped a glass flask. Instead of shattering and spreading all around it just broke but still kept his form. He found out that the flask once contained plastic cellulose nitrate which had formed a thin film on the inside and kept the glass from breaking apart.
Dr. Plunkett and his assistant, Jack Rebok, were experimenting with tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) as an alternative refrigerant. Dr. Plunkett created around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small pressurized cylinders. When he opened the valve of the previously frozen TFE cylinder, nothing came out despite it being heavy. After cutting open the cylinder he found that the TFE gas inside had polymerized into a waxy white powder, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin. He found out that this substance was extremely slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable, and had an extremely high melting point. Later this was patented as Teflon.
Henri Becquerel was studying x-rays using naturally fluorescent minerals. He believed that uranium in potassium uranyl sulfate absorbed the sun’s energy and then emitted it as x-rays. On one overcast in Paris, he decided to develop the photographic plates of his “failed” experience but was shocked to see that the images were clear. This established that uranium emitted radiation without an external source of energy such as the sun and thus radioactivity was discovered.