Inventions by Accident
Interesting and useful things invented by accident
1826, friction matches
While Walker was preparing a lighting mixture on one occasion, a match which had been dipped in it took fire by an accidental friction upon the hearth. He at once appreciated the practical value of the discovery, and started making friction matches.
In 1859, Chesebrough went to the oil fields in Titusville, Pennsylvania, and learned of a residue called “rod wax” that had to be periodically removed from oil rig pumps. The oil workers had been using the substance to heal cuts and burns. Chesebrough took samples of the rod wax back to Brooklyn, extracted the usable petroleum jelly, and began manufacturing the medicinal product he called Vaseline.
In 1869, while studying the structure of the pancreas under a microscope, Paul Langerhans, a medical student in Berlin, identified some previously unnoticed tissue clumps scattered throughout the bulk of the pancreas. The function of the “little heaps of cells”, later known as the islets of Langerhans, initially remained unknown, but Édouard Laguesse later suggested they might produce secretions that play a regulatory role in digestion. Paul Langerhans’ son, Archibald, also helped to understand this regulatory role. The term “insulin” originates from insula, the Latin word for islet/island.
Saccharin was produced first in 1879, by Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist working on coal tar derivatives in Ira Remsen’s laboratory at Johns Hopkins University. Fahlberg noticed a sweet taste on his hand one evening, and connected this with the compound benzoic sulfimide on which he had been working that day.
1886, x-ray image
When Stanford University physics professor Fernando Sanford created his “electric photography” he also unknowingly generated and detected X-rays. From 1886 to 1888 he had studied in the Hermann Helmholtz laboratory in Berlin, where he became familiar with the cathode rays generated in vacuum tubes when a voltage was applied across separate electrodes, as previously studied by Heinrich Hertz and Philipp Lenard. His letter of January 6, 1893 (describing his discovery as “electric photography”) to The Physical Review was duly published and an article entitled Without Lens or Light, Photographs Taken With Plate and Object in Darkness appeared in the San Francisco Examiner.
Radioactivity was discovered in 1896 by the French scientist Henri Becquerel, while working with phosphorescent materials. These materials glow in the dark after exposure to light, and he suspected that the glow produced in cathode ray tubes by X-rays might be associated with phosphorescence. He wrapped a photographic plate in black paper and placed various phosphorescent salts on it. All results were negative until he used uranium salts. The uranium salts caused a blackening of the plate in spite of the plate being wrapped in black paper. These radiations were given the name “Becquerel Rays”.
It soon became clear that the blackening of the plate had nothing to do with phosphorescence, as the blackening was also produced by non-phosphorescent salts of uranium and by metallic uranium. It became clear from these experiments that there was a form of invisible radiation that could pass through paper and was causing the plate to react as if exposed to light.
1903, laminated glass
Laminated glass was invented in 1903 by the French chemist Édouard Bénédictus (1878-1930), inspired by a laboratory accident. A glass flask had become coated with the plastic cellulose nitrate and when dropped shattered but did not break into pieces. However, it was not until 1909 that Benedictus filed a patent, after hearing about a car accident where two women were severely injured by glass debris.
Epperson claimed to have first created an ice pop in 1905, at the age of 11, when he accidentally left a glass of powdered lemonade soda and water with a mixing stick in it on his porch during a cold night, a story still printed on the back of Popsicle treat boxes.
in his laboratory in the basement of St Mary’s Hospital in London (now part of Imperial College), Fleming noticed a Petri dish containing Staphylococci that had been mistakenly left open was contaminated by blue-green mould from an open window, which formed a visible growth. There was a halo of inhibited bacterial growth around the mould. Fleming concluded that the mould released a substance that repressed the growth and caused lysing of the bacteria.
1930, smoke detector
In the late 1930s Swiss physicist Walter Jaeger tried to invent a sensor for poison gas. He expected that gas entering the sensor would bind to ionized air molecules and thereby alter an electric current in a circuit in the instrument. His device did not meet its purpose: small concentrations of gas had no effect on the sensor’s conductivity. Frustrated, Jaeger lit a cigarette and was soon surprised to notice that a meter on the instrument had registered a drop in current. Smoke particles from his cigarette had apparently done what poison gas could not. Jaeger’s experiment was one of the advances that paved the way for the modern smoke detector. In 1939 Swiss physicist Ernst Meili devised an ionization chamber device capable of detecting combustible gases in mines. He also invented a cold cathode tube that could amplify the small signal generated by the detection mechanism to a strength sufficient to activate an alarm.
PTFE was accidentally discovered in 1938 by Roy J. Plunkett while he was working in New Jersey for DuPont. As Plunkett attempted to make a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant, the tetrafluoroethylene gas in its pressure bottle stopped flowing before the bottle’s weight had dropped to the point signaling “empty.” Since Plunkett was measuring the amount of gas used by weighing the bottle, he became curious as to the source of the weight, and finally resorted to sawing the bottle apart. He found the bottle’s interior coated with a waxy white material that was oddly slippery. Analysis showed that it was polymerized perfluoroethylene, with the iron from the inside of the container having acted as a catalyst at high pressure. Kinetic Chemicals patented the new fluorinated plastic (analogous to the already known polyethylene) in 1941, and registered the Teflon trademark in 1945.
Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral invented his first touch fastener when, in 1941, he went for a walk in the woods and wondered why burdock seeds clung to his coat and dog. He discovered it could be turned into something useful. He patented it in 1955, and subsequently refined and developed its practical manufacture until its commercial introduction in the late 1950s.
During World War II, Coover was part of a team conducting research with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates in an effort to find a way to make a clear plastic that could be used for precision gunsights for soldiers. While working with the chemicals, the researchers discovered that they were extremely sticky, and this property made them very difficult to work with. Moisture causes the chemicals to polymerize, and since virtually all objects have a thin layer of moisture on them, bonding would occur in virtually every testing instance. They rejected them and moved on with their research.
Six years later, in 1951, Coover was transferred to Kodak’s chemical plant in Kingsport, Tennessee. That’s when he re-discovered the cyanoacrylates and recognized in them a new potential. He had been overseeing the work of a group of Kodak chemists who were researching heat-resistant polymers for jet airplane canopies. They tested cyanoacrylate monomers and this time, Coover realized these sticky adhesives had unique properties in that they required no heat or pressure to bond. He and his team tried the substance on various items in the lab and each time, the items became permanently bonded together.
1945, microwave food heating
In 1945, the heating effect of a high-power microwave beam was accidentally discovered by Percy Spencer, an American self-taught engineer from Howland, Maine. Employed by Raytheon at the time, he noticed that microwaves from an active radar set he was working on started to melt a chocolate bar he had in his pocket. The first food deliberately cooked with Spencer’s microwave was popcorn, and the second was an egg, which exploded in the face of one of the experimenters.
1968, post-it notes
In 1968, Dr. Spencer Silver, a scientist at 3M in the United States, was attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive. Instead, he accidentally created a “low-tack”, reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive. For five years, Silver promoted his “solution without a problem” within 3M both informally and through seminars, but failed to gain acceptance. In 1974, a colleague who had attended one of his seminars, Art Fry, came up with the idea of using the adhesive to anchor his bookmark in his hymn book. Fry then utilized 3M’s officially sanctioned “permitted bootlegging” policy to develop the idea. The original notes’ yellow color was chosen by accident, as the lab next-door to the Post-It team had only yellow scrap paper to use.
The first clinical trials were conducted in Morriston Hospital in Swansea. Phase I clinical trials under the direction of Ian Osterloh suggested the drug had little effect on angina, but it could induce marked penile erections. Pfizer therefore decided to market it for erectile dysfunction, rather than for angina; this decision became an often-cited example of drug repositioning.
In the 1990s, McPherson’s big contribution to the world was protective eyewear for surgeons who were using a certain laser in the operating room. His friend Mike borrowed those operating room glasses one day on a Frisbee field. And when he put them on, he saw something he’d never seen before - orange, the fluorescent orange cones on the field.