Some of the greatest inventions ever were discovered by accident. Some have revolutionised health care, while others have had an enormous impact in our kitchens or for industries. Let’s see how 10 incidental discoveries have changed the world…
Various medical treatments and tools we take for granted are the result of accidental acts of discovery. Penicillin is probably among the accidental findings that has saved the most number of lives. Before the discovery of penicillin in 1928, infections were a leading cause of death. More than 200 million lives are estimated to have been saved since, thanks to Alexander Fleming’s discovery upon his return from summer holidays. He then noticed that petri dishes he had left in his lab containing a fungus – later identified as a strain of penicillin – had killed all surrounding colonies of the bacteria staphylococci. The rest is history, and penicillin considered to be among the greatest medical discoveries of all time.
2) Anaesthesia and 3) X-rays
It is less known that both anaesthesia and X-rays also are accidental findings. Back in 1844, inhaling nitrous oxide – more commonly known as laughing gas – was a trick performed at shows, as it made people howl like hyenas. During a demonstration of its use, the American dentist Horace Wells witnessed how a volunteer who had inhaled too much laughing gas suddenly didn’t feel any pain. Wells drew the correlation and went on to pioneer the use of anaesthesia in dentistry. Fifty years later, in 1895 the German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen experimented with an electric current in a cathode-ray tube and noticed that when shielded with thick cardboard paper, a fluorescent light was generated by a material located near the tube. Further tests showed that the rays – X-rays – could penetrate through most substances while casting shadows of solid objects. Within a year, the world’s first radiology department opened at the Glasgow Royal Infirmary – and billions of X-rays have been taken since.
Drugs turning out to have unforeseen side effects: 4) Botox and 5) Viagra
Botox – a purified and diluted form of the world’s deadliest toxin Botulinum toxin – has been used for therapeutic purposes since the 1970’s. Ophthalmologists used it to treat uncontrollable blinking crossed eyes and other facial, eyelid and limb spasms. But in 1987, the Canadian doctors, Jean and Alastair Carruthers, observed an interesting side effect which has had a tremendous impact on the cosmetic industry. The use of Botox for treating wrinkles has since become widespread. Botox generated sales exceeding 3 billion US dollars in 2017 and there were approximately 5 million Botox treatments performed in the US - alone. Another drug with unexpected side effects is the chemical compound sildenafil citrate, sold under the brand name Viagra. The drug was originally developed by Pfizer for the treatment of high blood pressure and angina pectoris, chest pain due to heart disease. During the clinical trials, the scientists soon noticed that the tested drug was more effective at inducing erections than treating chest pain… Pfizer’s little blue pills have earned the company tens of billions of dollars since their launch 20 years ago.
Discoveries revolutionising our cooking (methods): 6) Teflon and 7) microwaves
The first generation of refrigerators primarily used ammonia or sulphur dioxide as refrigerants. In 1938, when Roy Plunkett, a scientist with DuPont, was working on ways to synthesise new refrigerants, he noticed that the content of one of his containers of experimental gas had solidified and turned into a slick surface. It turned out to be resistant to extreme heat and chemicals, as well as effective as a lubricant. The product was trademarked as Teflon in 1945. It was at first used in military applications, while we nowadays find it in our kitchens, applied to our frying pans. Another great discovery was made by Percy Spencer. He was testing a magnetron – a vacuum tube emitting microwaves – when he noticed the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. Spencer soon figured out that the food exposed to microwaves heated up quickly. His employer, Raytheon, went on to file a patent on the use of microwaves for cooking food in 1945. The first microwave models were, however, bulky, heavy and expensive. It was only in the late 1960’s that the first compact microwaves aimed for domestic use appeared and eventually made an entry into our kitchens.
Food and beverage discovered by coincidence: 8) saccharin and 9) Coca-Cola
Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg, two American chemists, experimented coal-tar derivatives at John Hopkins University in 1879. After a day spent at the lab, Fahlberg realised that something spilled on his hands and arms had a particularly sweet taste. He traced it back to the compound – saccharin – which by a stroke of luck also turned out to be free of calories. It was the first commercially available artificial sweetener. In 1886, pharmacist John Pemberton attempted to cure headaches by mixing coca leaves with cola nuts and sold it in the form of a flavoured syrup. A lab assistant accidentally mixed the concoction with sparkling water – creating Coca-Cola. The syrup’s formula has remained a well-kept secret ever since and is kept in a vault in the World of Coca-Cola Museum in Atlanta, Georgia.
Nature as inspiration: 10) Velcro
George de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, observed how cockleburs – a rough weed - had the ability to stick to his clothes and his dog’s fur. When analysing the plant under a microscope, he saw heaps of tiny hooks that easily attached to the small loops found in clothing fibres, animal furs or human hair. De Mestral decided to try to recreate a fabric fastener acting like the cockleburs. It led to the invention of Velcro® – a combination of the words velvet and crochet – in 1955. But it wasn’t until NASA started to use Velcro during the Apollo missions during the 1960’s that it success took off. A couple of years later, the first sneakers were equipped with Velcro rather than shoe laces, to the great relief of the younger generations.
Numerous other accidental findings
There are numerous other innovations that were made by pure accident that also have disrupted our lives – both positively and negatively – chewing gum, super glue, brandy, dynamite, LSD, vulcanised rubber, Play-Doh, Corn Flakes, popsicles, Post-It notes… to cite just a few. Hopefully, there are many more such incidental findings to come. Who knows? Maybe you will turn out to be the lucky one making the next amazing accidental discovery…
This article is part of our ’(Digital) Disruption’ series: Digitalisation and/or inventions can have surprising outcomes, disrupting sectors which no one had on the agenda. We have a closer look at some of these ’exotic’ pioneers.