Most groundbreaking inventions take years of painstaking work to be developed and refined. On the other hand, some of the most life-changing inventions have happened by accident. It’s a little bit terrifying how inventions and discoveries that have saved millions of lives only occurred because some observant individual noticed something strange. If you don’t believe it, read on.
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Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered that the mold penicillin killed other molds in 1928. How did he discover this? He noticed the mold on some discarded Petri dishes. This led to Oxford scientists turning this discovery into medicine a decade later. It began to be used in 1942 and still is the most commonly used antibiotic worldwide.
Warfarin, a Blood Thinner
In the 1920s, sheep grazed on moldy clover hay and died of internal bleeding. A Canadian vet, Frank Schofield, realized the mold on the hay contained a substance that prevented their blood from clotting. In 1940, researcher Karl Link and his team at the University of Wisconsin found the anticoagulant substance in the moldy hay. The Wisconsin Alumni Research Foundation (WARF), which helped pay for its research, patented a stronger version of the substance, named warfarin in the center’s honor.
John Hopps, an electrical engineer, was researching hypothermia. He hoped to restore the body temperature of people with hypothermia by using radio-frequency heating. During his trial, he discovered that shocking the heart could help it regain its rhythm if it stopped beating because it was too cold. This idea led to the pacemaker, which was made in 1951.
The Microwave Oven
In 1946, Raytheon scientist Percy Spencer was conducting research on a new vacuum tube the company hoped to use for radar. He noticed a candy bar in his pocket started to melt, so he grabbed some popcorn kernels and placed them near the tube. Spencer patented the device, and it went into widespread production in the 1970s.
In 1878, Konstantin Falberg found saccharin by mistake. It was the first artificial sugar. The Russian scientist was working in a lab at Johns Hopkins University at the time. The scientist accidentally tasted the thing made when 2-toluene sulfonamide was oxidized, which turned out to be sweet. In 1884, Fahlberg got a patent for the substance and started selling it. The product is still used as an alternative to sugar.
Dr. Spence Silver, a scientist at the American company 3M, got the idea for Post-it notes from his failed trials. He was making strong glue for sticky tape but got weak glue instead. Dr. Silver couldn’t think of a way to use it. Another worker at 3M named Art Fry came up with the answer. Fry sang in a church choir and didn’t like how his songbook’s tabs kept falling out. He put a small layer of new glue on a paper marker, which worked well to stick to the paper and be removed without damage. So, in 1977, the notes in almost every office and home came into being.
In 1941, when Swiss engineer George De Mestral and his dog returned from a walk, they were covered in tiny stickers from the cocklebur plant. When De Mestral looked more closely, he saw that the burrs formed tiny barbs that caught on his clothing loops and his dog’s fur. He was so interested that he tried to make his hook-and-loop fabric, which took him over ten years. He got a patent for Velcro in 1955. Velcro is used a lot in making clothes, medical gadgets, cars, and ships today. And in 2021, experts finally figured out how to make Velcro quieter after studying it for decades.
Laminated glass, sandwich glass, or safety glass are some of the names for another accidental invention that has saved many lives. A flask in the lab of French chemist Édouard Bénédictus got covered in cellulose nitrate, a kind of plastic, in 1903. When it dropped, the glass broke but didn’t shatter. Bénédictus patented the idea of glass sandwiched in clear plastic in 1909 after hearing about two people severely injured by glass debris in a car accident. By 1930, British law required safety glass to be installed in all motor vehicles.
Bubble wrap started as an attempt to create a uniquely textured wallpaper. Alfred Fielding and Marc Chavannes marketed their invention, shower curtains with air pockets between them, as greenhouse insulation after the wallpaper idea bombed. This wasn’t a hit, either. Marketer Frederick Bowers pitched the invention as packing material for IBM computers, and Bubble Wrap as we know it was created in 1960.
Before the friction match, people usually made fires with flint and steel or a fire drill, which was hard to use. A British chemist, John Walker, had been tinkering around with chemicals when he scraped a covered stick across his fireplace by mistake. When the stick caught fire, it gave Walker an idea. In 1827, he started selling “Congreves” at his drugstore. They were cardboard sticks covered in potassium chlorate and antimony sulfide. When hit against a piece of sandpaper, the mixture would catch fire. He didn’t patent this; many other companies created their own versions.
In 1849, American inventor Walter Hunt created the first safety pin with a spring. There were earlier versions, but none had the characteristic spring now found in all safety pins. He patented it in 1849 but sold the rights for just $400 later.
The X-Ray Machine
Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen “found” the science behind the X-ray machine, a key part of modern medicine, by chance on November 8, 1895. Rontgen was trying out cathode rays, a part of the technology that would later become TV. The History Channel’s website says he was trying to see if the rays could go through the glass when he saw a glow coming from a nearby chemically coated screen. Because he didn’t know what these rays were, he called them “X-rays.”
In 1839, Charles Goodyear accidentally dropped some India rubber blended with sulfur on a hot stove. This is how he found out about vulcanization. Vulcanization is a chemical process that changes the physical qualities of natural or manufactured rubber. The finished rubber has a higher tensile strength, resists swelling and damage, and is pliable over a wider range of temperatures. Vulcanization allowed manufacturers to create more resilient automotive tires.
American scientist named Roy J. Plunkett, a DuPont research scientist, was experimenting with tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) gas when he and his assistant realized the gas had polymerized into polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) in an iron canister. He noticed it was corrosion- and high-heat-resistant and had low surface tension. Teflon was first used on valves in the Manhattan Project and was patented in 1945.
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