History has shown that some of the biggest game-changing inventions and discoveries of our time were not the product of calculated genius, but accidents that happened to work out. Some were serendipitous, meaning they were stumbled upon by chance, whereas others occurred while the inventors were trying to discover something else.
They are inventions and discoveries that changed lives - the inventors, the consumers or both. Some benefited mankind, others less so. And such accidental discoveries are actually not rare occurrences.
They are inventions and discoveries that changed lives - the inventors, the consumers or both. Some benefited mankind, others less so. And such accidental discoveries are actually not rare occurrences.
The following are some of the famous (and not so well-known to us) accidental inventions. It’s a compilation from different sources and is not meant to be ranked in the order listed.
The discovery of penicillin is one of the most famous and fortunate accidents of the 20th century.
If you've been living under a rock for the past 80 years or so, here's how the popular story goes:
Alexander Fleming didn't clean up his workstation before going on vacation one day in 1928. When he came back, Fleming noticed that there was a strange fungus on some of his cultures. Even stranger was that bacteria didn't seem to thrive near those cultures.
Penicillin became the first and is still one of the most widely used antibiotics.
This list wouldn't be complete without at least one absent-minded professor. But it's not flubber clocking in at No. 2, it's a life saving medical device. That pacemaker sewn into a loved one's chest actually came about because American engineer Wilson Greatbatch reached into a box and pulled out the wrong thing.
It's true. Greatbatch was working on making a circuit to help record fast heart sounds. He reached into a box for a resistor in order to finish the circuit and pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000-ohm one.
The circuit pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for one second. Then it repeated. The sound was as old as man: a perfect heartbeat.
Talk about strange connections - 18-year-old chemist William Perkin wanted to cure malaria; instead his scientific endeavours changed the face of fashion forever and, oh yeah, helped fight cancer.
Confused? Don't be. Here's how it happened.
In 1856 Perkin was trying to come up with an artificial quinine. Instead of a malaria treatment, his experiments produced a thick murky mess. But the more he looked at it, the more Perkin saw a beautiful colour in his mess. Turns out he had made the first-ever synthetic dye.
His dye was far better than any dyes that came from nature; the colour was brighter, more vibrant, and didn't fade or wash out. His discovery also turned chemistry into a money-generating science - making it attractive for a whole generation of curious-minded people.
But the story is not over yet. One of the people inspired by Perkin's work was German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, who used Perkin's dyes to pioneer immunology and chemotherapy.
Two words that you don't ever want to hear said in the same sentence are "Whoops!" and "radioactive." But in the case of physicist Henri Becquerel's surprise discovery, it was an accident that brought radioactivity to light.
Back in 1896 Becquerel was fascinated by two things: natural fluorescence and the newfangled X-ray. He ran a series of experiments to see if naturally fluorescent minerals produced X-rays after they had been left out in the sun.
One problem - he was doing these experiments in the winter, and there was one week with a long stretch of overcast skies. He left his equipment wrapped up together in a drawer and waited for a sunny day.
When he got back to work, Becquerel realized that the uranium rock he had left in the drawer had imprinted itself on a photographic plate without being exposed to sunlight first. There was something very special about that rock. Working with Marie and Pierre Curie, he discovered that that something was radioactivity.
In 1907 shellac was used as insulation in electronics. It was costing the industry a pretty penny to import shellac, which was made from Southeast Asian beetles, and at home chemist Leo Hendrik Baekeland thought he might turn a profit if he could produce a shellac alternative.
Instead his experiments yielded a moldable material that could take high temperatures without distorting.
Baekeland thought his "Bakelite" might be used for phonograph records, but it was soon clear that the product had thousands of uses. Today plastic, which was derived from Bakelite, is used for everything from telephones to iconic movie punch lines.
6. Vulcanized Rubber
Charles Goodyear had been waiting years for a happy accident when it finally occurred.
Goodyear spent a decade finding ways to make rubber easier to work with while being resistant to heat and cold.
Nothing was having the effect he wanted.
One day he spilled a mixture of rubber, sulphur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat charred the mixture, but didn't ruin it. When Goodyear picked up the accident, he noticed that the mixture had hardened but was still quite usable.
At last! The breakthrough he had been waiting for! His vulcanized rubber is used in everything from tires, to shoes, to hockey pucks.
After all the damage they've done to the ozone layer, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are persona non grata. Back in the 1930s, however, they were (pardon the pun) the hot new thing in the science of refrigeration.
Young DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett was working to make a new a new kind of CFC. He had a theory that if he could get a compound called TFE to react with hydrochloric acid, he could produce the refrigerant he wanted.
So, to start his experiment Plunkett got a whole bunch of TFE gas, cooled it and pressured it in canisters so it could be stored until he was ready to use it. When the time came to open the container and put the TFE and hydrochloric acid together so they could react, nothing came out of the canister. The gas had disappeared.
Only it hadn't. Frustrated and angry, Plunkett took off the top of the canister and shook it. Out came some fine white flakes. Luckily for everyone who's ever made an omelette, he was intrigued by the flakes and handed them off to other scientists at DuPont.
8. Smart Dust
Most people would be pretty upset if their homework blew up in their faces and crumbled into a bunch of tiny pieces.
Not so student Jamie Link. When Link was doing her doctoral work in chemistry at the University of California, San Diego, one of the silicon chips she was working on burst. She discovered afterward, however, that the tiny pieces still functioned as sensors.
The resulting "smart dust" won her the top prize at the Collegiate Inventors Competition in 2003. These teensy sensors can also be used to monitor the purity of drinking or seawater, to detect hazardous chemical or biological agents in the air, or even to locate and destroy tumour cells in the body.
Saccharin, the artificial sweetener in the pink packet, was discovered because chemist Constantin Fahlberg didn't wash his hands after a day at the office.
Prepare to get icked.
The year was 1879 and Fahlberg was trying to come up with new and interesting uses for coal tar. After a productive day at the office, he went home and something strange happened.
He noticed the rolls he was eating tasted particularly sweet. He asked his wife if she had done anything interesting to the rolls, but she hadn't. They tasted normal to her. Fahlberg realized the taste must have been coming from his hands - which he hadn't washed.
The next day he went back to the lab and started tasting his work until he found the sweet spot.
If not for a little recreational fun with laughing gas and ether, anaesthesia might've
never been discovered. Comstock/Thinkstock
never been discovered. Comstock/Thinkstock
Without this accidental discovery, medical treatments would be a big pain - literally.
Although the true discoverer of anaesthesia is contested, the people who contributed to its development and use were inspired by similar accidental observations.
Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells all come to mind when talking about anaesthesia. These men realized that in some cases, ether and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) inhibited pain in people under their influence.
In the 1800s, inhaling either of these compounds was somewhat popular for both recreation and entertainment. By witnessing and even partaking in these events, often called "laughing parties" and "ether frolics," anaesthesia's founding fathers learned more about how these experiences affected people's perceptions of pain.
One example in particular demonstrates the accidental discovery of these compounds used to prevent pain in the medical field. In 1844, Horace Wells attended an exhibit and witnessed a participant injure his leg while under the influence of laughing gas. The man, whose leg was bleeding, told Wells that he didn't feel any pain.
After his accidental discovery, Wells used the compound as an anaesthetic while he removed his tooth. From there, anaesthesia's use during medical procedures and surgeries took off. Wells, Morton and Jackson began to collaborate and use anaesthesia in dental practices, while Crawford Long used ether for minor surgeries.
Left: Velcro hooks. Right: Velcro loops.
What do Velcro, a dog's fur and cocklebur plants have in common? Though the list seems quite random, there's more to it if you look closer.
Such was the thinking of George De Mestral, an electrical engineer, after returning from a walk with his canine companion. Once inside, De Mestral noticed how perfectly cockleburs bound to his dog's fur. So, with microscope in hand, he examined the bur closely.
He discovered that the cocklebur was lined with numerous tiny hooks that could easily attach to the loops of his clothing and the fur of his dog. With this concept in mind, De Mestral toyed around with other materials, creating surfaces with hooks and loops to develop a stronger bond. In 1955, De Mestral settled on nylon as his material to perfect his accidental invention, calling it Velcro. Today we still use Velcro, or a similar product, in our daily lives.
When you think of side effects, you usually consider them to be bad. But in some cases, as we'll soon find out, certain side effects can lead to substantial discoveries.
When Simon Campbell and David Roberts, two researchers working at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, began studying the effectiveness of a new drug, they had no clue what their product would turn into. The two developed a drug they hoped would treat high blood pressure and a heart condition called angina. By the late 1980s, it was ready to be tested on human patients in clinical trials.
The team administered the drug - called UK-92480 - to patients in a trial and learned that it wasn't as effective as researchers predicted. Yet as scientists looked at the side effects of the trial, they noticed multiple patients reporting that the treatment led to erections. With an open mind, researchers at Pfizer moved forward to learn more about this unintended side effect.
Rather than using the drug experimentally to treat blood pressure and heart issues, the company launched a new clinical trial to use the drug for erectile dysfunction disorder. The trial proved successful, and the newly named Viagra, also known as sildenafil citrate, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998.
13. Microwave Oven
Despite its usefulness, you may be surprised to learn that the microwave oven was developed by accident. Without it, what would we use to quickly heat up our leftovers or pop popcorn?
We can thank Percy Spencer for discovering the microwave while inspecting a magnetron, or a type of tube that releases energy to power radar equipment. As a leading scientist during World War II, Spencer was visiting a lab at the Raytheon Company, when he noticed something strange while standing in front of the device.
Believe it or not, the contents of Spencer's pocket got his attention: a candy bar stored there had melted. Spencer, on the other hand, didn't melt (thankfully!). We know today that prolonged exposure to microwaves - the waves, not the appliances - can be harmful to humans in certain circumstances.
Looking for another food item to challenge the device with, Spencer decided corn kernels would do the trick. After his success with popcorn and other foods, Spencer invented another machine with similar technology, which gave rise to the microwaves we see today.
Invented in 1945, the microwave is still a popular must-have for more than 90 percent of U.S. households more than 65 years later [source: Liegey]
Alfred Nobel, maker of dynamite.
Studying explosives isn't for the lighthearted.
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, learned this the hard way. In efforts to stabilize nitroglycerin, an explosive liquid, Nobel and laboratory workers experienced several accidents - one of which ultimately proved fatal. An explosion in Stockholm, Sweden, left Nobel's younger brother and a few others dead in 1864.
No one knew how exactly this accident affected Nobel, but most suspect it further pushed him to find a solution to safely store explosive materials. With this new knowledge of the instability of nitroglycerin, Nobel continually tested methods to detonate and store explosives.
Some say that Nobel discovered the key to stabilizing the substance through another accident.
While transporting nitroglycerin, Nobel noticed that one of the cans accidentally broke open and leaked. He discovered that the material in which the cans were packed - a sedimentary rock mixture called kieselguhr - absorbed the liquid perfectly [source: Brunswig]. Since nitroglycerin is most dangerous to handle in its liquid form, the incident led Nobel to explore kieselguhr as a stabilizer for explosives.
Ingeniously, Nobel developed a formula that allowed the explosive to be mixed with kieselguhr without hindering its power. He patented his product in 1867, naming it dynamite, which revolutionized construction practices and the creation of explosives.
15. The Psychedelic Nature of LSD
Lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD, wasn't invented by accident. Yet the effects of one LSD derivative were discovered perchance. (Read How LSD Works to learn more about the drug's history.)
When Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann began working for Sandoz laboratories in 1929, he was on a mission to map the unchartered territory of compounds derived from a fungus called ergot. Hofmann wanted to examine the properties and stability of these compounds to gauge their potential as medicine.
He produced one derivative called LSD-25, but the compound wasn't particularly interesting to other scientists and physicians at the time.
Five years later, Hofmann decided to look at LSD-25 once more. While producing the compound in 1943, Hofmann claimed he was "interrupted in [his] work by unusual sensations" [source: Hofmann]. Hofmann somehow accidentally ingested the substance, placing him in an intoxicated and stimulated state. After leaving work early to go home and lie down, Hofmann claimed to perceive "fantastic pictures" and shapes with "intense kaleidoscopic play of colors" [source: Hofmann].
Hofmann had accidentally discovered the effects of one of the strongest psychic drugs in modern times. Although Hofmann experimented further with the drug and pushed for its use in medical and psychiatric settings, he was not thrilled to learn that people were abusing the drug recreationally in the 1960s. As a result, he resorted to calling LSD his problem child.
Okay, yes, x-rays are a phenomenon of the natural world, and thus can't be created. But sshhh! The story of their discovery is a fascinating one of incredible chance. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was performing a routine experiment involving cathode rays, when he noticed that a piece of fluorescent cardboard was lighting up from across the room. A thick screen had been placed between his cathode emitter and the radiated cardboard, proving that particles of light were passing through solid objects. Amazed, Roentgen quickly found that brilliant images could be produced with this incredible radiation - the first of their kind being a skeletal image of his wife's hand.
17. Stainless Steel
Chaloner Woods/Getty Images
The next time you raise a non-rusty fork to your mouth at a meal, you should think of Harry Brearley, the English metallurgist credited with discovering the steel alloy we commonly call "stainless." Actually, stainless steel wasn't entirely Brearley's doing. Metallurgists for nearly a century before him had been toying with different metal mixes, trying to create a corrosion-resistant variety. But nobody succeeded to the extent that Brearley did when he stumbled on the recipe in 1913. He had been hired by a small arms manufacturer, whose gun barrels were wearing out too quickly, to develop an alloy that would better resist erosion (not corrosion). Brearley tried elements in different proportions in the metal until he created a steel containing 12.8 percent chromium and 0.24 percent carbon. How he figured out that his steel resisted corrosion isn't entirely verified, but the most plausible account has him running a routine test on the barrel that involved etching it with nitric acid. The metal stood up to the acid, and after it withstood other corrosives like lemon juice, Brearley realized it would be perfect for cutlery. He took his "rustless steel" to a local cutler, who dubbed it "stainless steel," and the name stuck.
18. Corn Flakes
Who knew that one of America's (and world's) first beloved cereals was invented by accident?
It all started with Will Keith Kellogg, his interest in medicine and a bout of forgetfulness. Kellogg assisted his brother, who worked as a doctor at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, with patients and their diets.
While conducting research with his brother and helping cook meals for patients, Kellogg stumbled upon a discovery that would change his life.
Responsible for making bread dough one day, Kellogg accidentally left his main ingredient - boiled wheat - sitting out for several hours. When he came back to roll the ingredient into dough, the wheat became flaky. Curious to see what would happen, Kellogg baked the flaky dough anyway, creating a crunchy and flaky snack. The flakes were a hit with patients, so Kellogg embarked on a mission to enhance the product for large-scale sale.
Will Kellogg tinkered with his recipe and finally settled on using corn as a main ingredient for the flakes. He launched his business, "The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company," in 1906, which eventually came to be known as the Kellogg's company that sells Corn Flakes, other cereals and convenience foods today.
19. Chocolate Chip Cookies
According to Nestle, Mrs. Wakefield (owner of the Toll House Inn) was making chocolate cookies but ran out of regular baker’s chocolate, so she substituted it with broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate, thinking that it would melt and mix into the batter. It clearly did not, and the chocolate chip cookie was born. Wakefield sold the recipe to Nestle in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips (instead of patenting it and making billions!) Every bag of Nestle chocolate chips in North America has a variation of her original recipe printed on the back (margarine is now included both as a variant on butter and for those people who want to pretend it is healthy).
The Popsicle was invented by an 11 year who kept it secret for 18 years. The inventor was Frank Epperson who, in 1905, left a mixture of powdered soda and water out on the porch, which contained a stir stick. That night, temperatures in San Francisco reached a record low. When he woke the next morning, he discovered that it had frozen to the stir stick, creating a fruit flavoured ice treat that he humbly named the epsicle. 18 years later he patented it and called it the Popsicle.
21. Potato Chips
The first potato chip was invented by George Crum (half American Indian half African American) at Moon’s Lake House near Saratoga Springs, New York, on August 24, 1853. He was fed up with the constant complaints of a customer who kept sending his potatoes back to the kitchen because they were too thick and soggy. Crum decided to slice the potatoes so thin that they couldn’t be eaten with a fork. Against Crum’s expectation, the customer was ecstatic about the new chips. They became a regular item on the lodge’s menu under the name “Saratoga Chips” and a large contributing factor of the Western world’s obesity problems.
22. Ice Cream Cone
To the delight of all, the ice cream cone came to be another accidental discovery that only came about in 1904. Before that ice creams were served in boring dishes only. It was at the 1904 World Fair that so many ice creams were sold that the place ran out of dishes and were thus being served in thin waffles.
These rolling cones came to be served with ice cream popping on top and thus came about one of the very first ice cream cones in the world.
There are many stories of accidentally invented food: the potato chip was born when cook George Crum (yes, really his name!) tried to silence a persnickety (fussy) customer who kept sending french fries back to the kitchen for being soggy; Popsicles were invented when Frank Epperson left a drink outside in the cold overnight; and ice cream cones were invented at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
But no food-vention has had as much success as Coke.
Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton was trying to make a cure for headaches. He mixed together a bunch of ingredients - and don't ask, because we don't know; The recipe is still a closely guarded secret. It only took eight years of being sold in a drug store before the drink was popular enough to be sold in bottles.
24. Super Glue
In what have been a very messy moment of discovery in 1942, Dr. Harry Coover of Eastman-Kodak Laboratories found that a substance he created – cyanoacrylate - was a miserable failure. It was not, to his dismay, at all suited for a new precision gun sight as he had hoped - it infuriatingly stuck to everything it touched. So it was forgotten. Six years later, while overseeing an experimental new design for airplane canopies, Coover found himself stuck in the same gooey mess with a familiar foe - cyanacrylate was proving useless as ever. But this time, Coover observed that the stuff formed an incredibly strong bond without needing heat. Coover and his team tinkered with sticking various objects in their lab together, and realized they had finally stumbled upon a use for the maddening goop. Coover slapped a patent on his discovery, and in 1958, a full 16 years after he first got stuck, cyanoacrylate was being sold on shelves.
In 1943, Navy engineer Richard James was trying to figure out how to use springs to keep the sensitive instruments aboard ships from rocking themselves to death, when he knocked one of his prototypes over. Instead of crashing to the floor, it gracefully sprang downward, and then righted itself. So pointless - so nimble - so slinky. The spring became a goofy toy of many childhoods - that is before every kid inevitably gets theirs all twisted up and ruins it. 300 million sold worldwide!
Before being found ground into the rugs of child-rearing homes everywhere, Play-Doh was ironically created to be a cleaning product. The paste was first marketed as a treatment for filthy wallpaper - before the company that produced it began to go down the tubes. The discovery that saved Kutol Products - headed for bankruptcy - wasn't that their wall cleaner worked particularly well, but that schoolchildren were beginning to use it to create Christmas ornaments as arts and crafts projects. By removing the compound's cleanser and adding colors and a fresh scent, Kutol spun their wallpaper saver into one of the most iconic toys of all time - and brought mega-success to a company headed for destruction. Sometimes, you don't even know how brilliant you are until someone notices for you.
27. Silly Putty
It bounces, it stretches, it breaks - it's Silly Putty, the silicone-based plastic clay marketed as a children's toy by Binney & Smith, Inc. During World War II, while attempting to create a synthetic rubber substitute, James Wright dropped boric acid into silicone oil. The result was a polymerized substance that bounced, but it took several years to find a use for the product. Finally, in 1950, marketing expert Peter Hodgson saw its potential as a toy, renamed it Silly Putty, and a classic toy was born! Not only is it fun, Silly Putty also has practical uses - it picks up dirt, lint, and pet hair; can stabilize wobbly furniture; and is useful in stress reduction, physical therapy, and in medical and scientific simulations. It was even used by the crew of Apollo 8 to secure tools in zero gravity.
28. Post-it Notes
A Post-it note is a small piece of paper with a strip of low-tack adhesive on the back that allows it to be temporarily attached to documents, walls, computer monitors, and just about anything else. The idea for the Post-it note was conceived in 1974 by Arthur Fry as a way of holding bookmarks in his hymnal while singing in the church choir. He was aware of an adhesive accidentally developed in 1968 by fellow 3M employee Spencer Silver. No application for the lightly sticky stuff was apparent until Fry's idea. The 3M company was initially sceptical about the product's profitability, but in 1980, the product was introduced around the world. Today, Post-it notes are sold in more than 100 countries.
[Edited. Some images added.]