How can an accident change the world? Easily and significantly when you are talking about the inventions and discoveries made in science and engineering which were not intended outcomes, but which have turned out to be far more useful than the people who originally noticed their existence could have predicted.
Many aspects of our lives today would be very different were it not for the accidental inventions listed below. Happy accidents have led to profound societal changes, countless saved lives, and much more.
Possibly one of the most famous accidental discoveries in science of all time, penicillin has saved countless lives since it was discovered by Alexander Fleming in 1928. According to popular legend, Fleming was notoriously disorganized and one evening left his lab having forgotten to cover some samples of bacteria growing in petri dishes. On returning he noticed a fungus growing on the dishes, and in the areas around this fungus the bacteria did not thrive. This fungus eventually became penicillin, the world’s first antibiotic.
Nitroglycerine, the explosive ingredient of dynamite, is dangerously unstable in its liquid form. Many industrial accidents involving nitroglycerine had happened, including one in which the brother of Alfred Nobel was killed. Many who knew Nobel feel that this accident spurred him on to research safe storage of explosives, but his most famous invention, dynamite, was inspired by an accident. Some nitroglycerin that he was working with spilled over a rock mixture called kieselguhr. Nobel noticed that the rock mixture absorbed the liquid perfectly, and thought that it could be a good medium for transporting the liquid explosive. This rock and liquid nitroglycerine mixture became the basis of dynamite. Some of the fortune that Nobel made from his invention now funds the Nobel prizes, so his happy accident has gone on to fund huge amounts of further scientific research.
3. The Pacemaker
Another lifesaver invented thanks to a simple mistake, pacemakers are today used widely around the world. A pacemaker’s ability to simulate a human heartbeat is remarkable, and is all due to its inventor Wilson Greatbatch using the wrong part when trying to make a device to record heart sounds.
Greatbatch fitted the wrong resistor into his invention, and noticed that the circuit he created pulsed at a very similar rate to a healthy heart beat. Luckily for the people who today depend on pacemakers, Greatbatch recognized the potential of this pulse as a means to stimulate the heart into beating healthily, and developed the pacemaker.
The first artificial sweetener and a key ingredient in diet drinks was created by a scientist inadvertently taking his work home with him. Constantine Fahlberg was working with chemicals in a lab at Johns Hopkins University and one evening he noticed that the bread he was eating tasted unusually sweet. He realized that some of the chemical he had been working with that day must have stayed on his hands.
After further investigation he realized that the chemical could be used to artificially sweeten many food products, and patented saccharin. Dieters and diabetics the world over have been grateful ever since.
5. The Microwave Oven
Surprisingly the microwave oven was not an invention in its own right, but a side effect of a second, a World War radar device. A scientist was inspecting a magnetron, a device that releases the energy used to power radar, when he realized that the chocolate bar in his pocket has melted from the microwaves being released. He tested it on other food stuffs, including corn kernels, and realized that the waves consistently heated up foods. This realization meant that the microwave oven was born.
One of the biggest selling drugs of the last decade, Viagra was not originally invented to treat impotence. In the 1980s the drug company Pfizer was working on a drug to treat high blood pressure. The human trials of the drug showed that it was not particularly effective for high blood pressure, but that it did have the side effect of treating erectile dysfunction. How did researchers first discover that the drug had the side effect of treating erectile dysfunction? The popular story is that researchers first got the hint when none of their clinical trial patients would return their supply of the drug!
Rather than discard the drug as a failure, the researchers realized the potential of the drug to treat a widespread ailment and improve the lives of millions of frustrated men.
How does taking a dog for a walk lead to an invention that has revolutionized the clothing and footwear industries? George De Mestral noticed that small seeds called cockleburs would stick to his dog’s fur after walks, and luckily decided to investigate.
When examining the cockleburs and the dog’s fur under a microscope, he noticed that tiny hooks on the seeds connected perfectly with the loops of hair making up the dog’s fur. He saw the potential of this connection, and used the concept to make the nylon version of Velcro that we use today.
Before an accidental observation led to the introduction of an aesthetics, surgery was carried out with little available pain relief at great danger to the patient. Anesthetics allowed surgery to be carried out without the pain, shock, and regular fatalities that came before. But prior to becoming widely used in medicine, ether and nitrous oxide was being served as a recreational drug at fashionable parties.
Laughing gas, as it is often known, produced an enjoyably delirious state, which people in the 1800s were keen to access. Doctors attending the parties where it was served noticed that it had a side effect of inhibiting pain, and realized the medical potential of this effect.
9. Corn Flakes
A failed attempt to make bread led to the invention of one of the world’s biggest selling cereals. Will Keith Kellogg was helping his doctor brother to feed his patients and was baking bread. His main ingredient for the bread, boiled wheat, was accidentally left to dry for several hours and turned into small crunchy flakes. These became a popular snack with the patients, and Kellogg began to experiment with other recipes. He settled on corn as the basis of the flakes, and the iconic breakfast cereal was born.