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Accidental Inventions and Discoveries

Updated on May 24, 2012

Alexander Flemming

Lady Luck

Seneca wrote “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” This nicely encapsulates the type of luck that brings about advancements in human knowledge and understanding. If you and I noticed the bread had gone moldy it is unlikely that we would have been prepared to test the mold and discover from it the way to make penicillin, a drug that fights infection. Below is a list of some of my favorite accidental inventions and discoveries.


I have a feeling that saccharin is not a great invention. This conviction comes from the fact that it was discovered by Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist who was looking into possible uses for coal tar. One day he didn’t wash his hands when he got home and noticed that the bread he was eating was sweet. He asked his wife about this and quickly Constantin realized his coal tar mucky hands held the secret to an artificial sweetener.


The biggest selling soft drink in the world is coke. It was discovered accidentally by John Pemberton in Atlanta, USA. He was looking for a cure for headaches. Instead he discovered a way to rot teeth and a way to disguise the taste of strong alcohol, the ingredients of which are still a jealously guarded secret today.


Roy Plunkett was working for DuPont. He had a notion that he could make a new type of chlorofluorocarbon, or CFC, used for refrigerants at the time, by reacting TFE with hydrochloric acid. It didn’t work but he did get a few flakes of something that turned out to have amazing non-stick properties. Hence Teflon was discovered.

Electrical Discharge Machining

This is probably my favorite accidental discovery. Two Russian doctors, Dr. B. R. Lazarenko and Dr. N. I. Lazarenko in 1943 were experimenting with trying to develop a weapon using electrical discharges. Instead they discovered a way to cut hard metals and alloys using the sparks given off when a high voltage is put across two graphite electrodes. This process is now often called sink erosion or wire erosion and is indispensible to many industries that need precision cutting of hard metals and alloys.


No list of accidental discoveries would be complete without mention of penicillin. Alexander Fleming was looking for a way to kill bacteria. Unlike the others in this list, his discovery was what he wanted. He didn’t clean his workstation in 1928 before going on holiday. When he returned he found a strange fungus on one of his cultures, and more amazing, bacteria seemed repelled by this fungus. He immediately realized the significance of his discovery and the world had its first antibiotic that saved countless lives in World War Two and since.


At the moment my baby daughter is playing with out-of-date Coleman’s mustard. She might unwittingly discover something that will make her daddy rich, or maybe not.


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