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10 Accidental Inventions That Changed The World

Updated on January 4, 2015

Accidents happen, sometimes for good reasons. These 10 accidental inventions turned out to be incredible contributions to society. Not only did these incredible breakthroughs change the world, they set a precedent for further innovation and critical thinking for mankind.

Chance favors the prepared mind.

— Louis Pasteur

10 Penicillin

Who would have ever thought that untidiness would result in one of the greatest scientific breakthroughs of the 20th century? Alexander Fleming, a brilliant bacteriologist, had a habit of leaving dirty Petri dishes in his lab whenever he left. In this case, he took a break from his research, which consisted of studying the properties of bacteria staphylococci. When he came back to the lab on September 28, 1928, he noticed that one of his Petri dishes was contaminated with fungus. Upon further examination, the fungus had actually prevented the staphylococci bacteria from growing. Eventually, he was able to create a substance to kill off the disease-ridden bacteria and named the released “mold juice” penicillin.

Penicillin was especially important in World War II, dramatically helping to reduce the number of deaths and amputations troops would have otherwise gone through. To date, penicillin is still the most used antibiotic in the world and has saved millions of lives.

9 Gunpowder

Many centuries were spent looking for a magical potion that could make a person immortal. One Chinese alchemist, whose name has been lost, combined potassium nitrate, charcoal, and sulfur. This resulted in what is now known as gunpowder. When a flame was added to the “elixir”, the result was startling to the alchemists. History says their hands and faces were burned, as well as the house they were working in. Although they didn’t know it at the time, gunpowder would help save the Song Dynasty from the Mongols. They were able to create explosive devices such as mines, rockets, and hand grenades, which instilled fear in their enemies.

Interestingly enough, while gunpowder didn’t make the Chinese immortal, it helped to preserve their mortality. While having numerous military applications, gunpowder helped create dynamite, making it safer to build tunnels such as the underground part of the Canal du Midi, a canal that connected the Atlantic Ocean and the Mediterranean Sea in 1679.

8 X-ray

On November 8, 1895, Wilhelm Roentgen discovered the X-ray, which could essentially see through clothing and human skin. This didn’t happen by mere chance, it happened by accident. That evening, Roentgen was in his laboratory figuring out how cathode-ray tubes emit light when he noticed that a screen 9 feet away had a green fluorescent color, even though the tube was well shielded with heavy black cardboard. Roentgen knew he was on to something, and eventually came to figure out that the cathode rays in the glass vacuum tube were creating a new type of ray. He decided to name it X-radiation, or X-ray, using ‘X’ because of its unknown nature.

Roentgen knew that if this new kind of ray could pass easily through materials like metals and wood, then why not flesh? He proceeded to take an X-ray of his wife’s hand, confirming his reasoning. Word quickly spread and within days most of the world found out about this innovative new technology. Today it has been adapted for many different uses in the medical industry and has revolutionized the way patients are being diagnosed and treated.

7 Microwave

Percy Spencer had a rough young life, his father died when he was an infant and his mother abandoned him soon after. Forced to live with his aunt and uncle, he didn’t get much of a formal education. However, in his teenage years, his interest in electricity eventually landed him a job as an electric installer, where he would wire businesses with power. At 18 he joined the Navy because of his interests in wireless communications. He went on teach himself trigonometry, physics, calculus, chemistry, and many other subjects while standing watch at night.

It was now 1939, and Spencer had made a name for himself as one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design. He had quickly worked his way up the ladder to become the chief of the power tube division at Raytheon, a contractor for the United States Department of Defense. Spencer was notable for helping Raytheon to win a U.S. government contract to build radar equipment and it ended up being the second most important project during WWII, with the Manhattan Project being first priority.

One day, Spencer was standing in front of a radar set that was on, and to his surprise, the candy bar in his pocket melted. Immediately, he began experimenting and created what is known as the world’s first microwave popcorn. At first, microwaves were giant and expensive, only affordable by corporations and restaurants. Eventually, in 1967, it made its way into the average household boasting higher efficiency, lower cost, and a much smaller design.

6 Teflon

Roy Plunkett was a research chemist that worked for what is now known as DuPont, an American chemical company. His job was to research new types of refrigerants that were safer than sulfur dioxide and ammonia. The morning of April 6, 1938, Plunkett’s assistant, Jack Rebok, took one of the TFE (tetrafluoroethylene) cylinders and attempted to let the gas flow, but nothing happened. When they emptied the cylinder, a white powder came out. To their amazement, the TFE had polymerized into polytetrafluoroethylene, a solid with incredible properties such as high heat resistance, corrosion resistance, and low surface friction.

PTFE is now best known as Teflon and has numerous applications such as being used as a non-stick coating for pans and other cooking ware. Because of its non-reactive properties, it is often used in containers and pipework used to handle corrosive and reactive chemicals. Whether it’s for cabling solutions, food processing, pharmaceutical manufacturing or semiconductor development, Teflon has numerous applications today for nearly anything.

5 Laminated Glass

The reality of a science lab is that things do break, especially glass flasks. Edouard Benedictus, working in his lab one day, accidentally knocked one of the flasks off of his desk. What happened next puzzled Benedictus, as the glass didn’t simply shatter into small pieces, but rather broke while keeping its form. He found out that the glass at one point in time contained plastic cellulose nitrate, which ended up drying and creating an adhesive film that kept the glass from shattering like it normally would. He successfully recreated it by putting the celluloid between two layers glass. He proceeded to file a patent in 1909 and it became known as laminated glass. While the automobile companies didn’t catch on quickly due to the costs involved, the laminated glass became very popular in WWI, where it was used in the eyepieces of the gas masks.

Eventually, in 1927, the first laminated glass began appearing in automobiles. Benedictus’ accidental invention also inspired many other types of glass such as bulletproof and tempered glass, both that have numerous applications today.

4 Artificial Sweeteners

Constantin Fahlberg was a Russian chemist whose job was to analyze sugar shipments on behalf of the U.S. government. A year later, in 1878, Fahlberg got permission to start working on H.W. Perot’s research, the same company that contracted him to test the sugar shipment’s purity. While he made numerous scientific discoveries, they weren’t of any commercial value. One night, he was so into his research that he almost forgot about his dinner. He rushed off to eat, forgetting to wash his hands. As Fahlberg bit into a bread roll, he noticed that it tasted unusually sweet. He thought it was some kind of mistake, and found out that the substance causing this sweetness was on his hands. He immediately went back to his lab and proceeded to taste every beaker and dish. Luckily, none contained any harmful liquids and he found the one containing the substance.

He continued researching the super sweet sugar-like substance and found the best way to make it commercially viable. Fahlberg succeeded in doing so, and today it is used in diet soda, tabletop sweetener, processed foods, and many other products. Saccharin, which he named it, is actually so sweet that it needs to be diluted with dextrose or maltodextrin to mimic sugar’s sweetness properties.

3 Smart Dust

Jamie Link, a 2005 Ph.D. graduate from the University of California, was working on a thin multi-layer film of porous silicon on crystalline substrate when the silicon chip accidentally broke. She noticed, however, that the smart dust still retained the properties of the original chip. Her accidental discovery landed her a $50,000 grand prize in the Collegiate Inventors Competition.

Today, smart dust has various applications such as detecting toxins, environmental testing, drug delivery, and many more. These little particles can be made a certain color and then be programmed to detect certain toxins. When these toxins are detected, they join together to mark the pollutant. Furthermore, these tiny silicon chips have many other commercial, scientific, and medical applications that have yet to be utilized.

2 Plastic

At the age of sixteen, John Wesley Hyatt began working as a printer in Illinois. In 1861, around the age of 24, he patented a knife sharpener and went on to develop a new method for making dominoes and checkers, starting his own company in the process. In 1863, Phelan and Collender, a billiards company, posted a $10,000 prize for an alternative to using ivory in billiard balls. This caught Hyatt’s attention and he was determined to find an alternative. One day, a bottle of collodion had tipped over in his lab, and after watching it solidify, Hyatt got the idea of making celluloid, a plastic that could replace ivory in billiard balls.

Hyatt realized that when mixing nitrocellulose (flammable nitrate of cotton cellulose), camphor (resin from camphor trees), and alcohol, it could be pressed into a heated mold. For its first use, the plastic was made to replace denture plates that previously used hard rubber. From there on, it revolutionized many industries and today can be found in anything from phone cases to marshmallow bags.

1 Pacemaker

Wilson Greatbatch was in the U.S. Navy when he left and began working as a medical researcher. While in the process of building an oscillator that recorded heart sounds, he accidentally pulled the wrong resistor out of the box. After assembling the device, it began to give off a regular electric pulse, just like a heart beat. He quickly came to realize that this device could be used as a pacemaker. Fast-forward 2 years, and Greatbatch had refined his device and obtained the patent for the world’s first implantable pacemaker. Granted, he wasn’t the first person to come up with the idea of a pacemaker, but he revolutionized the medical industry by creating a pacemaker that was both small and had a long battery life. Previous attempts were successful, but yielded pacemakers the size of TVs, which was counterproductive.

Since then, pacemakers had remarkably improved, but one issue was still left on the table. Battery technology in the late 1960’s had its limitations so Greatbatch proceeded to manufacture lithium batteries that are still being used in pacemakers today. He’s company, Greatbatch Inc., ended up supplying 90% of the world’s pacemaker batteries, which is a feat in itself.

Not only did Wilson Greatbatch’s pacemaker save millions of lives, he stayed married for 60 years, successfully raised 5 children, and inspired the next generation of scientists to achieve the impossible.

© 2015 Daniel


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