From life-saving medicines to everyday household items, many of the achievements of science and technology were not the result of planned innovation, but rather a fortunate byproduct of chance events. These accidental discoveries have transformed the course of history and shaped the way we live our lives. Today, we’d like to explore some examples of these happy little accidents that, in many cases, have changed the world we live in. Here we go.
Antibiotics are our strongest weapon against bacteria. Without them, an infected tooth or a cut could become life-threatening, not to mention infections ranging from strep throat to the plague. Surprising as it may sound, though, the discovery of our strongest ally against them was an accident that happened to physician and microbiologist Sir Alexander Fleming.
When leaving for a vacation, Fleming left a few cultures of Staphylococcus aureus in a secluded part of his lab. Upon return, he found that one of them was opened, and contaminated with a blue-green mold – and that the bacteria didn’t grow in its vicinity while thriving further away from it. He later started experimenting with the extract of the mold and found that it could kill a series of bacterial strains that cause disease in humans.
An open lid and a vacation led to the discovery of a substance that is saving millions of lives to this day.
The microwave oven
When you get home from work after an exhausting day, all you want to do is crack open a cold one, throw a bag of popcorn into the microwave, and crash on the couch to relax while binge-watching your favorite show. The microwave oven is one of the wonders of science that makes our lives so much easier – and it too was discovered by accident.
American self-taught engineer Percy Spencer was working at Raytheon, an aerospace conglomerate, when has noticed that the waves emitted by an active radar nearby have melted his Mr. Goodbar that was in his pocket. He started experimenting with this high-density electromagnetic field and discovered that it could be used to heat up food very fast.
Incidentally, the first food he deliberately cooked in his new invention was popcorn.
The roulette wheel
Roulette is the best-known casino game of them all, with a massive presence in pop culture. Even those who never even think of gambling recognize it immediately, It’s hard to imagine that the age of online casinos with live roulette, where players can enjoy an almost real-life casino experience from the comfort of their homes, was brought forth by an accidental discovery.
Blaise Pascal was a child prodigy who grew up to become one of the most notable French mathematicians and inventors of his time, creating, among others, one of the first (mechanical) calculators in history. At one point, like many other scientists, he tried to build a perpetual motion machine – a device that could function indefinitely without the need to fuel it with any type of energy. Since this is impossible, he failed – but in the process, he built the first roulette wheel in history.
The sticky note
Before smartphones, most reminders were a few words scribbled on a piece of (stridently colored) paper and stuck on a surface in a place where they would definitely catch your eye. The sticky note or post-it note is an unsung hero of our time and earned its inventors a place in the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Spencer Silver worked as a senior chemist at 3M, developing a new adhesive in 1974. Arthur Fry was a chemical engineer at the same company, working in the tape division. The two met at a seminar where Silver promoted his new adhesive that Fry saw as a solution to a very annoying problem: his bookmarks kept falling out of his hymnal while he sang. Fry put Silver’s adhesive on his bookmarks, which never fell out again, and when removed, they didn’t leave residue behind. Thus, Post-It was born.
Finally, let’s take a look at the first technology that allowed doctors to take a look inside us without cutting us open: X-rays. Surprising as it may sound, this was also an accidental discovery by German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen.
Röntgen was working with Crookes tubes, a type of electrical discharge tube when he discovered a previously unknown form of radiation. He first described the new type of radiation, and kept experimenting with it – the discovery of its medical use came later. At one point, he bombarded his wife’s hand with X-rays while on a photographic plate. When he developed the plate, he found that the rays pass through the human body, being able to take pictures of the bones inside them. As you might expect, this scared him – he reportedly said “I have seen my death”. Within a year, though, the first clinical trial of the X-rays was completed – and with it began the era of medical imaging.
Sometimes the greatest discoveries are not the result of meticulous planning or extensive research, but rather the product of chance and circumstance. While some may dismiss these discoveries as mere strokes of luck, their impact on the world cannot be denied. From penicillin to the roulette wheel, these serendipitous discoveries have saved lives, created industries, and changed the way we live our lives. They remind us that innovation and progress can come from unexpected places and that we should always be open to the possibility of the unplanned. After all, who knows what the next accidental invention will be? The only thing we can be sure of is that it will continue to shape our world in ways we can’t even imagine.