They say Necessity is Mother of all Inventions, But not all scientific discoveries are planned. In fact, many of them were quite accidental in nature where scientists or researchers were looking to find a solution to one problem only to discover that what they created led to treating another. Accidental discoveries have been a genuine part of science for thousands of years.
Here is a list of the Top 10 accidental Scientific Discoveries that have made a large impact on many people’s lives over the years.
10. Vulcanized Rubber
The substance used in tires all over the world was a typical example of an accidental discovery. In 1839, Charles Goodyear had accidentally dropped a combination of sulfur, lead, and rubber on a hot stove. It hardened into a single substance, but it still had the overall flexibility of rubber. Goodyear had accidentally created a substance that was resistant to the cold and heat while still being rubber. This revolutionized the use of rubber and today you can find it on every vehicle that uses inflated tires.
This was the type of accidental discovery that had the opposite effect of the intention. In the late 1950s, Wilson Greatbatch was trying to invent an oscillator that could record the beats of the heart. However, he accidentally installed the wrong type of resistor which resulted in the device giving off an electrical pulse every second. He quickly realized that his small device could actually regulate the pace of heartbeats. At the time, the only devices that could do that were the size of television sets.
In 1938, Roy Plunkett, a chemist working for DuPont was trying to develop a new chlorofluorocarbon for use as a refrigerant. As he tried different chemicals to get a new result, he accidentally created a new polymer substance that was dubbed polytetrafluoroethylene. It was refined over time and eventually named Teflon that now coats the pans and skillets of kitchenware around the world.
The substance that changed warfare and the world was first discovered in the 9th Century AD by Chinese alchemists who were trying to create an elixir that would grant eternal life those who consumed it. As a result, they mixed together sulfur, charcoal, and salt peter which when ignited created a large explosion. The substance was later called gunpowder and the effect changed the world.
7. Shatterproof Glass
A discovery that has saved countless lives was one that was created by accident in the early part of the 20th century. Edouard Benedictus, a French chemist was experimenting with different materials when he accidentally dropped a glass flask that happened to be coated with the plastic cellulose nitrate he had been working with in his lab. When the flask hit the floor, it did not shatter like it should have and thus shatterproof glass was born.
Back in the early part of the 1990s, Pfizer was experimenting with a new drug designed to combat angina which is a precursor to many types of heart attacks. The intention was that the new drug would relax the constricted blood vessels and prevent the heart attack from occurring and it did not work. However, during the experimentation phase when male subjects had been given the drug, they noticed that it had a rather unexpected side effect. The result, Pfizer has made a considerable amount of money with this drug now called Viagra.
5. Microwave Oven
One of the more interesting accidental discoveries happened in 1945 when Percy Spencer, an engineer for Raytheon was experimenting with different sources of energy to power equipment used in radar. During one of his experiments he realized that the chocolate bar in his pocket was melting which was the result of being exposed to microwaves used to power the radar system. It was not long before the microwave oven was created and perfected using this technology.
3. X- Rays
Certainly one of the most important discoveries in the medical field, X-rays were created wholly by accident in 1895 by Wilhelm Rontgen, a German physicist. Rontgen was working with cathode ray tubes during an experiment when he noticed that in the distance he saw a glow that had no discernible explanation. He intuitively understood that an undiscovered type of radiation was responsible for the glow which he called “X-rays”. The rays passed through solid materials and it was not long before he used them to take the first medical x-ray of his wife’s hand.
One of the most important medical discoveries of the 20th century occurred totally by accident. Alexander Fleming, a Scottish biologist had been studying a batch of staphylococci or staph as it is colloquially called in his lab for weeks on end when he decided to take his vacation in August, 1928. When he returned to his lab on September 3rd, he found that an unusual fungus was present on a culture of staph that he had left in his laboratory. Fleming quickly realized that all the bacteria surrounding the fungus was dead and thus penicillin was born.
Back in 1907, a Belgian chemist Leo Baekeland was attempting to find an alternative for a resin secreted by a South Asian Beetle called shellac. Instead, when he combined phenol with formaldehyde and mixed in other materials he accidentally created plastic instead. By creating a polymer that was heat-resistant, non-conductive, and highly flexible in its applications, Baekeland managed to change the world as we know it thanks to his accidental discovery. About the only thing that didn’t survive was his original name for plastic which was Bakelite, which was a shortened version of his own name.
In the end, Accidental Discoveries have helped to shape the human experience and change the way we live in ways that were simply not predictable. Although there have been many advances in scientific research, the basic premise is still the same. Identify a particular problem and look for ways to solve it which in turn leads to potential breakthroughs for other problems all thanks to accidental discoveries.
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