Science

9 Accidental Scientific Breakthroughs

You may recall that inventions like the microwave and Play-Doh were mere happy accidents. And of course you’ve heard of Alexander Fleming’s penicillin jackpot. But there are so many more scientific breakthroughs that came about through sheer dumb luck that you may not have heard of.

Here are nine of our favourites, including a few that you use every single day.


Phonograph: In 1877, Thomas Edison was tinkering with a tinfoil and paper cylinder that would record telegraph signals. Somehow he managed to record his voice — the first time a human voice had been recorded. A principle that in turn led to the phonograph.


Post-It Notes: Where would we be without Post-Its? Constantly forgetting things at the grocery store, probably. The basis for these little squares of paper was a reusable, pressure-sensitive adhesive invented by 3M chemist Dr Spencer Silver. He was shopping it around the company, but no one was really interested. That is until Silver’s colleague Art Fry decided to use the sticky stuff it to anchor a bookmark to his hymnal. And thus, the Post-It note was born.


Vulcanised Rubber: Charles Goodyear worked for years to make a rubber that was durable and easy to work with, yet unaffected by heat and cold to no avail. His big discovery happened one day when he spilled a mix of rubber, lead and sulphur on the stove. Rather than spoil the solution, it charred it like leather. And now it’s the stuff we see in tires, shoes, tracks and so much more.


Radiation: You know that the discovery of radiation ended badly for Marie Curie, but did you know that the source of her demise was just a bad break? In 1896, physicist Henri Becquerel was curious as to whether naturally fluorescent materials would create X-rays when left in the sun. The only problem was it happened to be winter, so the skies were overcast. So he left all his tools, including a uranium rock, wrapped up in a drawer. When he pulled them out, the rock had left an imprint on a photographic plate without any exposure to light. With the help of Pierre and Marie Curie, he found that it was due to radiation. And, well, you know the rest.


Ink Jet Printer: A Canon engineer discovered this one when he set a hot soldering iron to his pen. The pen reacted by spitting out ink just moments later, and the principle behind a boring, albeit necessary, piece of tech was born.


Synthetic Dye: Chemist William Perkin was no Karl Lagerfeld. The accidental fashionista was hunting for a cure for malaria when he stumbled across the colour mauve. In 1856 he was trying to make an artificial form of quinine, but he got dark-coloured sludge instead. The guy must have had an eye for colour, however, because he recognised the purple hue as something that was popular with fashionistas of the era. So he isolated the compound responsible, patented it, and started making and selling synthetic dye.


Dynamite: Alfred Nobel aka Mr Nobel Prize owned a nitroglycerin factory. Which sounds like a totally fake thing but actually was totally a real thing. He was working on a formula that would make the stuff safer to work with, because it was unstable and known to blow up randomly. One day he dropped a vial of it onto the ground, and because it had seeped into some sawdust, thus becoming more stable, it did not explode. He refined this recipe, later mixing nitroglycerin with a form of silica, and then boom (and also zing!), dynamite.


Vaseline: Robert Chesebrough was trying to be an oilman in Pennsylvania in 1859. He didn’t exactly strike black gold — it was more like viscous snot yellow gold. Men working in the fields complained about gunk called rod wax that was clogging up their drilling equipment. The enterprising Chesebrough took the substance back to his lab in New York, isolated it from petroleum, and found it to be very good at healing cuts and scrapes, among other uses. In fact, Chesebrough was such a firm believer in the stuff, that he ate a spoonful every day until he died.


Viagra: Boner pills: where would men over 60 and their hot 22-year-old second wives be without them? Viagra was originally developed as a treatment for angina by two Pfizer researchers in the ’80s. But when they looked at the side effects, they found that taking the pills weren’t treating high blood pressure. Rather, they were causing hard-ons. That ended that trial. But then another one was started, to use the drug as something to treat erectile disfunction. And in 1998, it was FDA approved, and then we all started making jokes about how if you have an erection that lasts longer than eight hours you should call your doctor… to brag. But seriously, call your doctor if that happens.


Images: Anton Prado Photo, Andrey Armyagov, Edward Westmacott, Andre Helbig, Selim October, Graphic79, Fur Gregory, zirconicusso, Luchi_a


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