9 Inventions You Use Everyday That Were Discovered By Accident
There are hundreds of everyday items modern life cannot exist without that weren’t invented so much as stumbled upon by mistake. Here’s some that, for good or bad, depending on your point of view, we can’t imagine living without:
Just after WWII, Raytheon engineer Perry Spencer accidentally discovered that microwave radiation — courtesy of the magnetron inside of a radar array — can be used to cook food. Specifically, the candy bar he’d had in his pocket. Fortunately he discovered this before it cooked him too. Before long he was in full development of the one cooking instrument that transformed the world, and the microwave went on sale in 1946.
Back in the 19th century, sugar was simultaneously a cooking staple and a luxury item, since it had to be imported from sugar cane producing areas. But two Johns Hopkins University chemists, Constantin Fahlberg and Ira Remsen, changed that when, after a day at the lab processing chemicals, they went to lunch. Fahlberg noticed his food was overly sweet. Turns out it wasn’t the food, it was the stuff on his hands because he’d forgotten to wash them after handling chemicals all day. The two published a paper on their discovery in 1879 and then Fahlberg went ahead and patented the compound by himself, cutting Remsen out of the hugely profitable sweetener business and becoming a millionaire.
Even more than duct tape, this incredible invention holds the universe together. But it was originally a failure in 1942 when the inventor, Dr. Harry Coover, was trying to invent a crystal clear gun sight for Eastman-Kodak during WWII. Oh his material was clear all right; it just kept sticking to everything. It wasn’t until 16 years later that he realized there might be a use for something that would join objects together permanently without needing to be heated or cured first. One patent later, and Coover’s discovery is in every junk drawer… probably stuck to something else in there.
Back in the day, if you had a heart that was acting up, there was nothing to do but wait for it to fail. Eventually it was understood that a short electrical current could restart the heart, but that would require being connected to a washing machine-sized power pack. That is, until a University of Buffalo professor with the epic name of Wilson Greatbatch tried to build a heart-recording machine but used the wrong resistor, which happened to produce an electrical signal that approximated the human heartbeat. Using this circuit as a timer, it was not long before the first implantable pacemaker was being tested and marketed in 1960.
This isn’t so much of a mistake as a true accidental discovery, by a Swiss scientist named George de Mestral. Back in 1941, he came home from a hiking trip; tired of picking burrs off the dog, he looked under a microscope to see what made them stick, and discovered that they were covered in tiny hooks. He reasoned that he could recreate that on purpose and finally stumbled upon another artificial invention, nylon, and his velcro strips became a worldwide sensation 20 years later when NASA put the fasteners on everything.
It wasn’t so long ago that doctors didn’t know what was really wrong with you until they opened you up. The discovery of X-rays in 1895 and the ability to produce images on film with it was the beginning of modern medicine, coupled with the also recently discovered anesthesia. German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen happened to notice a fluorescent glow emanating from a cathode ray tube behind a screen, proving that some form of radiation could penetrate solid matter. He called this radiation “X” for unknown, hence X-rays. To this day, units of radiation are measured in Roentgens.
It’s thanks to a mistake that we can flip eggs in a pan without sticking. In 1938 Roy Plunkett, chemist, was experimenting with CFCs. Today we know these are bad for the ozone layer, but back then it was the ultimate in refrigeration technology to be able to make and keep things very, very cold. One of his experiments failed, and a gas canister’s contents evaporated, leaving only some white residue behind. So, of course he tooled around with the residue and discovered that it was the anti-superglue; nothing would stick to it. Which was great for the military, especially in aviation… but also made for some top-notch cookware.
It’s not everyone who starts the day trying to find a cure for malaria and ends up creating a color. In the 19th century, fabric dyes were made from plants and organic matter such as beetle shells and sea urchins. Then, in 1856, while trying to synthesize artificial quinine (a malaria treatment), a young scientist named William Perkin found that some of the residue was a nice shade of pink. This particular pink is called mauve, and it made a wonderful colorfast, permanent dye. This made the young man a fortune with the technology when the color was popularized thanks to Queen Victoria wearing a dress of that shade. Did we mention he discovered this when he was 18 years old?
Probably the world’s most famous example of scientific serendipity occurred in 1928. Hoping to prevent another influenza outbreak like the pandemic of 1918, Dr. Alexander Fleming left a petri dish in the sink before taking a two-week absence. Did we mention he was dealing with highly infectious bacteria?
What could have been the biggest lab disaster in history turned out to be actually okay because when he got back, he discovered that while the dish was now covered in bacteria, it was also partly covered in a mold from another source, some moldy bread (seriously this guy was a slob), and that the mold was killing the bacteria. So, lazy scientist has his work done for him while on vacation and takes all the credit. The mold should sue him.