In an era of constant innovation and discovery, we may not realize that most inventions take years — even decades — to develop. Although some breakthroughs take a lifetime of dedication, the curious mind needn’t worry.
As history shows us, people have crafted new inventions and stumbled upon discoveries by accident. To agree with Nobel prize-winning biochemist Albert Szent-Györgyi: “A discovery is said to be an accident meeting a prepared mind”
And a prepared mind is usually what it takes. As we learn about 10 accidental inventions and discoveries, remember that some were serendipitous, meaning they were stumbled upon by chance, whereas others occurred while the inventors were trying to discover something else. Take the Slinky, Silly Putty and Play-Doh, for instance. The inventors of these childhood amusements discovered them by chance while trying to discover or invent other things. Such accidental discoveries aren’t that rare, actually.
In this article, we’ll focus on some of the more unusual accidental discoveries, or ones that will leave you scratching your head in disbelief. These stories show that sometimes it takes a bit of luck to discover the next big thing.
10: The Psychedelic Nature of LSD
Lysergic acid diethylamide, also known as LSD, wasn’t invented by accident. Yet the effects of one LSD derivative were discovered perchance. (Read How LSD Works to learn more about the drug’s history.)
When Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann began working for Sandoz laboratories in 1929, he was on a mission to map the unchartered territory of compounds derived from a fungus called ergot. Hofmann wanted to examine the properties and stability of these compounds to gauge their potential as medicine.
He produced one derivative called LSD-25, but the compound wasn’t particularly interesting to other scientists and physicians at the time.
Five years later, Hofmann decided to look at LSD-25 once more. While producing the compound in 1943, Hofmann claimed he was “interrupted in [his] work by unusual sensations” [source: Hofmann]. Hofmann somehow accidentally ingested the substance, placing him in an intoxicated and stimulated state. After leaving work early to go home and lie down, Hofmann claimed to perceive “fantastic pictures” and shapes with “intense kaleidoscopic play of colors” [source: Hofmann].
Hofmann had accidentally discovered the effects of one of the strongest psychic drugs in modern times. Although Hofmann experimented further with the drug and pushed for its use in medical and psychiatric settings, he was not thrilled to learn that people were abusing the drug recreationally in the 1960s. As a result, he resorted to calling LSD his problem child.
9: Corn Flakes
Who knew that one of America’s first beloved cereals was invented by accident?
It all started with Will Keith Kellogg, his interest in medicine and a bout of forgetfulness. Kellogg assisted his brother, who worked as a doctor at the Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, with patients and their diets.
While conducting research with his brother and helping cook meals for patients, Kellogg stumbled upon a discovery that would change his life.
Responsible for making bread dough one day, Kellogg accidentally left his main ingredient — boiled wheat — sitting out for several hours. When he came back to roll the ingredient into dough, the wheat became flaky. Curious to see what would happen, Kellogg baked the flaky dough anyway, creating a crunchy and flaky snack. The flakes were a hit with patients, so Kellogg embarked on a mission to enhance the product for large-scale sale.
Will Kellogg tinkered with his recipe and finally settled on using corn as a main ingredient for the flakes. He launched his business, “The Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company,” in 1906, which eventually came to be known as the Kellogg’s company that sells Corn Flakes, other cereals and convenience foods today.
Accidents can lead to discoveries as well as roadblocks.
Studying explosives isn’t for the lighthearted.
Alfred Nobel, a Swedish chemist and engineer, learned this the hard way. In efforts to stabilize nitroglycerin, an explosive liquid, Nobel and laboratory workers experienced several accidents — one of which ultimately proved fatal. An explosion in Stockholm, Sweden, left Nobel’s younger brother and a few others dead in 1864.
No one knew how exactly this accident affected Nobel, but most suspect it further pushed him to find a solution to safely store explosive materials. With this new knowledge of the instability of nitroglycerin, Nobel continually tested methods to detonate and store explosives.
Some say that Nobel discovered the key to stabilizing the substance through another accident.
While transporting nitroglycerin, Nobel noticed that one of the cans accidentally broke open and leaked. He discovered that the material in which the cans were packed — a sedimentary rock mixture called kieselguhr — absorbed the liquid perfectly [source: Brunswig]. Since nitroglycerin is most dangerous to handle in its liquid form, the incident led Nobel to explore kieselguhr as a stabilizer for explosives.
Ingeniously, Nobel developed a formula that allowed the explosive to be mixed with kieselguhr without hindering its power. He patented his product in 1867, naming it dynamite, which revolutionized construction practices and the creation of explosives.
Artificial sweeteners surely top the invention list for those of you with a sweet tooth. But do you know the story of how saccharin, one of the first sweeteners, came to be?
Working in the lab of Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University, Constantine Fahlberg discovered saccharin by chance in 1879 while synthesizing other chemicals. As was the case with other accidental inventors, Fahlberg unknowingly carried some of his work home with him on his hands.
While eating at home, he noticed that his bread tasted particularly sweet, even though no sugar had been added to his meal. Connecting the dots, Fahlberg realized that the sweetness originated from the substance he was working with in the lab. After running more tests on the strange, sugary substance, Fahlberg patented saccharin independently — a decision that angered Remsen, who had collaborated with Fahlberg to create the compound [source: Walters].
Although Fahlberg’s poor hygiene would be considered a nightmare for most lab practices today, his discovery expanded consumers’ choices in the food industry.
Years later, saccharin can be found in many products, including the popular artificial sweetener Sweet’N Low. Since saccharin is not metabolized by the body, it’s virtually a non-calorie option. In reality, one gram of the sweetener contains less than five calories, which is usually reported as zero, according to U.S. Food and Drug Administration standards [source: FDA]. Saccharin appeals to people looking to sweeten food without sugar, especially those living with diabetes — a condition in which sugar levels are already high in the bloodstream.
6: The Microwave Oven
Despite its usefulness, you may be surprised to learn that the microwave oven was developed by accident. Without it, what would we use to quickly heat up our leftovers or pop popcorn?
We can thank Percy Spencer for discovering the microwave while inspecting a magnetron, or a type of tube that releases energy to power radar equipment. As a leading scientist during World War II, Spencer was visiting a lab at the Raytheon Company, when he noticed something strange while standing in front of the device.
Believe it or not, the contents of Spencer’s pocket got his attention: a candy bar stored there had melted. Spencer, on the other hand, didn’t melt (thankfully!). We know today that prolonged exposure to microwaves — the waves, not the appliances — can be harmful to humans in certain circumstances.
Looking for another food item to challenge the device with, Spencer decided corn kernels would do the trick. After his success with popcorn and other foods, Spencer invented another machine with similar technology, which gave rise to the microwaves we see today.
Invented in 1945, the microwave is still a popular must-have for more than 90 percent of U.S. households more than 65 years later.
When you think of side effects, you usually consider them to be bad. But in some cases, as we’ll soon find out, certain side effects can lead to substantial discoveries.
When Simon Campbell and David Roberts, two researchers working at the pharmaceutical company Pfizer, began studying the effectiveness of a new drug, they had no clue what their product would turn into. The two developed a drug they hoped would treat high blood pressure and a heart condition called angina. By the late 1980s, it was ready to be tested on human patients in clinical trials.
The team administered the drug — called UK-92480 — to patients in a trial and learned that it wasn’t as effective as researchers predicted. Yet as scientists looked at the side effects of the trial, they noticed multiple patients reporting that the treatment led to erections. With an open mind, researchers at Pfizer moved forward to learn more about this unintended side effect.
Rather than using the drug experimentally to treat blood pressure and heart issues, the company launched a new clinical trial to use the drug for erectile dysfunction disorder. The trial proved successful, and the newly named Viagra, also known as sildenafil citrate, was approved by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration in 1998.
Wilson Greatbatch expressed an insatiable interest in circuitry and held revolutionary thoughts about how to fix naturally occurring problems in the human body.
Greatbatch was on the hunt for a solution for “heart block,” a condition in which a heart does not receive messages from surrounding nerves to pump blood correctly. In contrast to other scientists who used large and cumbersome gadgets to stimulate heart muscle, Greatbatch wanted to devise a smaller implant to get the job done.
Though Greatbatch intended to create a machine to mend a broken heart, his moment of discovery may surprise you. While building an oscillator to record heart beat sounds in animals at Cornell University in 1958, he accidentally grabbed the wrong transistor and installed it in his device. Realizing his mistake, Greatbatch was still curious to see what would happen. Not expecting the oscillator to work, he switched it on and heard a familiar, rhythmic pulsing sound — a pattern remarkably similar to a heart.
By chance, his invention, known as the pacemaker, was ideal for pulsating signals to the heart. He tested his new creation on animals and fine-tuned the device before implanting it into a human in 1960. In recent years, Greatbatch has been lauded for his achievement — even if he discovered his solution by chance.
What do Velcro, a dog’s fur and cocklebur plants have in common? Though the list seems quite random, there’s more to it if you look closer.
Such was the thinking of George De Mestral, an electrical engineer, after returning from a walk with his canine companion. Once inside, De Mestral noticed how perfectly cockleburs bound to his dog’s fur. So, with microscope in hand, he examined the bur closely.
He discovered that the cocklebur was lined with numerous tiny hooks that could easily attach to the loops of his clothing and the fur of his dog. With this concept in mind, De Mestral toyed around with other materials, creating surfaces with hooks and loops to develop a stronger bond. In 1955, De Mestral settled on nylon as his material to perfect his accidental invention, calling it Velcro. Today we still use Velcro, or a similar product, in our daily lives.
Of course, we can’t discuss accidental inventions without mentioning one of medicine’s most important advancements — the discovery of penicillin. But it’s this fungus group’s rocky beginning that makes its success hard to believe.
Alexander Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, first put penicillin on the map after an incident in his lab. After returning from a two-week vacation in 1928, Fleming noticed that one of his petri dishes was the new home of a mysterious mold. Strangely, Fleming observed that existing bacteria in the dish did not grow where the mold grew, indicating its potential in staving off unwanted microorganisms. Fleming isolated, classified and described the mold. Producing large amounts of the mold, however, proved to be a difficult task.
Because of this, Fleming’s accidental discovery wasn’t used for treatment right away. It may have slipped into obscurity if not for other researchers.
Nearly 13 years after Fleming’s accidental encounter with penicillin, Howard Florey, Norman Heatley and Andrew Moyer catapulted penicillin into the spotlight again when they switched the type of mold used to one that grew better, producing enough to test medical treatments. Since then, penicillin has been used around the world, saving many lives along the way.
Although it may have been difficult in the past to imagine the next big cure stemming from mold growing in a petri dish, the collaboration and open minds of penicillin’s first scientists paid off.
Without this last accidental discovery on our list, medical treatments would be a big pain — literally.
Although the true discoverer of anesthesia is contested, the people who contributed to its development and use were inspired by similar accidental observations.
Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells all come to mind when talking about anesthesia. These men realized that in some cases, ether and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) inhibited pain in people under their influence.
In the 1800s, inhaling either of these compounds was somewhat popular for both recreation and entertainment. By witnessing and even partaking in these events, often called “laughing parties” and “ether frolics,” anesthesia’s founding fathers learned more about how these experiences affected people’s perceptions of pain.
One example in particular demonstrates the accidental discovery of these compounds used to prevent pain in the medical field. In 1844, Horace Wells attended an exhibit and witnessed a participant injure his leg while under the influence of laughing gas. The man, whose leg was bleeding, told Wells that he didn’t feel any pain.
After his accidental discovery, Wells used the compound as an anesthetic while he removed his tooth. From there, anesthesia’s use during medical procedures and surgeries took off. Wells, Morton and Jackson began to collaborate and use anesthesia in dental practices, while Crawford Long used ether for minor surgeries.
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