Some brilliant minds spend months, years or even decades trying to invent or discover something they believe in. Discoveries such as microwaves or matchsticks help us every day in our lives, but did you know that they were actually discovered by pure accident? While their creators weren’t exactly hoping to invent or discover these things, circumstances led them to find things that have changed the world in one way or another. While some of these discoveries might not be world-changing, without the right minded person, they would have gone unnoticed. Without further ado, here are 10 of the greatest accidental discoveries that changed the world.
1. The microwave was invented by Percy Spencer in 1946, while working on a radar-related project. During an experiment, he discovered that a chocolate bar he had in his pocket melted and his insatiable thirst for knowledge led him to investigate; which eventually led to the invention of the microwave.
Percy Spencer was a high school drop out. Born in 1894 in Maine, USA, he loved fiddling with electronic equipment at an early age. By the age of 16, Spencer had mastered most of the technical part and helped install electricity at a local paper mill. He then worked as a radio operator in the Navy, while also continuing to read and develop an in-depth knowledge on topics most of us would have a hard time understanding. After joining the American Appliance Company, he became one of the world’s leading experts in radar tube design. During the 1940’s, he was experimenting with an active radar set when he noticed that the chocolate bar he had kept in his pocket to snack on, had melted at an extremely fast rate.
A curious Spencer immediately started studying and trying to understand what exactly caused the chocolate to melt. Spencer tried several experiments and finally understood the potential of microwaves in the field of cooking. After successfully inventing the first microwave oven, Spencer, along with the company he worked for, filed a patent for the first microwave oven in 1945. While the first model was bulky and unrealistic, by the 1960’s, compact versions of the microwave started filling American homes. (source)
2. In 1836, a sewer repair man accidentally discovered an old drain which ran immediately under a gold vault. He then wrote letters to the bank directors and asked them to meet inside the vault. When the men arrived, the worker popped up through some of the floor boards to surprise them.
The Bank of England is the second largest gold reserve in the world, holding around 400,000 bars of gold, worth over £100 billion. In more than 320 years of the bank’s existence, no one has ever managed to infiltrate the bank and steal its gold; except for one man who found a secret passage into the vault in 1836. During the Victorian era, a sewage repair man was working one night, when he stumbled upon an old drain that was running right underneath the vault. Instead of taking the gold bars, the man wrote letters to the bank the next day, hoping to setup a meeting inside the vault.
After a few letters, he was finally able to convince the board of directors, who patiently waited inside the vault one night. As the directors waited eagerly to meet the anonymous man, they started hearing noises from under the floor. Then all of a sudden, the man popped up and surprised them. The directors were amazed to see him, and also of his honesty, since he could have taken all the gold he wanted. For his morality, and making the bank aware of their little breach in security, the bank rewarded him with £800 – which would be worth approximately £80,000 in today’s money. (source)
3. In 1943, naval engineer Richard James was working with tension springs on a naval vessel when he accidentally knocked one of the springs over and noticed that it kept moving after it hit the ground. Thus, the Slinky was born.
While the Slinky might not be a world changing invention, it surely is part of childhood for millions of people all over the world. The Slinky was also invented because of a laboratory mishap that took place in 1943. Born in Delaware, USA, James was a naval engineer with a mechanical engineering degree. He dedicated most of his life to discovering how to suspend sensitive instruments so they would not be affected by the movements made by ships during their voyage. During one of the experiments, James was inserting a tension spring to create a meter for the horsepower of naval vessels when he accidentally knocked one over.
The spring, upon impact, started moving and James became mesmerized by the view. He dropped the springs a few more times and observed how they moved across the floor; which gave him the idea for the toy – the Slinky. The Slinky made its first department store appearance in 1945 and went on to become one of the most popular toys sold across the United States. (source)
4. The pacemaker was invented by Wilson Greatbatch, who was working on an oscillator to record heart sounds in the late 1950’s. During the assembly process, he accidentally installed an incorrect resistor, which caused the device to give off a rhythmic electrical pulse. Greatbatch was smart enough to realize his accidental invention’s potential, and that’s how the pacemaker was born.
Born in New York, USA, in 1919, Greatbatch was actually a prolific and pioneering inventor, with more than 150 patents to his name. Although pacemakers existed before Greatbatch, they were not implantable and were not affordable for most people. During the 1950’s, Greatbatch was working on building an oscillator to record the sounds of a heartbeat, when he reached into his equipment box and grabbed a resistor. The resistor that Greatbatch had grabbed during the assembly process was in fact of the wrong type and the mistake was only realized when he was finished with his work.
When Greatbatch turned on his device, instead of oscillating, the device was giving off a rhythmic electrical pulse. Greatbatch was smart enough to realize the potential of his accidental creation and understood that the device could be used as an implantable pacemaker. Greatbatch went on to refine his invention, making it smaller and later adding batteries to make it self-sufficient. His company, Greatbatch, Inc., (now Integer Holdings Corporation) later became one of the biggest suppliers of pacemaker batteries to the majority of countries. (source)
5. In 1827, English pharmacist John Walker accidentally discovered the world’s first matchstick. While stirring a pot of chemicals, he noticed a dried lump at the end of his mixing stick, which resulted in sparks and flame when he tried to scrape it off.
We can thank British pharmacist John Walker for the matchstick. In 1826, Walker was working with a solution that included antimony sulfide and potassium chlorate, that needed to be stirred well. After using a mixing stick on the pot containing the chemicals, he noticed that a lump had formed at the tip of his mixing stick. Walker tried to scrape off the lump, which resulted in sparks and flames. Understanding the potential of his discovery, Walker went on to make the first friction matches as “Friction Lights” and sold them at his pharmacy.
He later made the matchsticks with three-inch long hand-cut wooden splints and placed them in boxes containing pieces of sandpaper for striking on either sides. Although his friends and family members advised him to patent his invention, Walker believed that the matchsticks to benefit mankind, so he chose not to make money off of it. Others however, saw that they could profit from his invention, so they started making replica products and took over the market; forcing Walker to stop producing his version. (source)
6. In 1968, while Dr. Spencer Silver was trying to develop a strong adhesive, he accidentally ended up creating a weak adhesive. In 1974, his colleague used the adhesive to stick his bookmark in a hymn book and thus the idea for post-it notes was born.
Born in Texas, USA in 1931, Dr. Spencer Silver was a senior chemist at 3M. In 1968, he was trying to develop a super strong adhesive, which actually ended up being a weak, re-positionable adhesive. Spencer wasn’t sure what to do with his failed experiment so he left it at that until 1974, when his colleague used the weak glue to stick a bookmark in a choir hymn book. Spencer noticed that the glue was weak enough that it allowed the paper to be removed and to be re-used several times without leaving marks. Thus, in 1977, the post-it notes came to life, thanks to his colleague. (source)
7. In 1839, Charles Goodyear invented vulcanized rubber, when he accidentally dropped his rubber concoction on a hot stove; which made it weatherproof.
By the 1830’s, rubber was becoming popular, being used to make shoes and boots. While they were waterproof, they were still unable to withstand freezing temperatures and extreme heat. This caused both the customers and manufacturers to become frustrated, since there was no viable solution. Charles Goodyear however, disagreed and hoped to find a solution. In 1839, he was working with rubber, when in a fit of excitement, threw the piece of rubber, which landed on a hot stove. The rubber was treated with sulphur and Goodyear observed that instead of melting, it was becoming charred, creating an almost leathery, heat-resistant waterproof substance.
Goodyear went on to experiment further and discovered that he could get effective results if he steamed the treated rubber. Although Goodyear lived his life in debt and never reaped any profits from his accidental invention, his name and legacy lives on forever. (source)
8. In 2015, a team of scientists discovered that Victoria’s Secret perfume repels mosquitoes effectively for up to 2 hours; better than some commercially available repellants.
While testing out effective mosquito repellents in 2015, scientists used Victoria’s Secret perfume, initially thinking that it would attract them. To their surprise, the perfume was repelling mosquitoes, for as long as two hours. Scientists tested two batches of mosquitoes that are known to spread major diseases, and found that the perfume repels both batches effectively. However, scientists did use around 0.5 mL of the perfume, so under normal concentrations, the fragrance probably wouldn’t have the same effect. (source)
9. In 1770, Edward Nairne, an English engineer, accidentally picked up a piece of rubber instead of breadcrumbs, and discovered that rubber can erase pencil markings.
Before rubber was used to erase pencil markings, people used breadcrumbs. In some countries, sandstone or pumice was used as a substitute for breadcrumbs. The fact that rubber can actually erase pencil marks wasn’t known until 1770. Edward Nairne, an English engineer, was scribbling on his note, when he made a mistake. While in a hurry to erase his mistake, he picked up a piece of rubber instead of the usual breadcrumbs. Nairne started selling his accidental discovery as a substitute to breadcrumbs, but the original eraser did not work very well. It often crumbled or fell apart with just a single use. It wasn’t until 1839, when inventor Charles Goodyear invented the method of curing the rubber – vulcanization – which made it more durable. (source)
10. During the mid 1800’s, Thomas Adams invented the first modern chewing gum.
Thomas Adams, an American scientist and inventor, was born on Staten Island in the USA in 1818. During the 1950’s, Adams was living in New York and working as a secretary for Antonio de Santa Anna, when he noticed that Santa Anna liked to chew the gum of the Manilkara tree. Also known as chicle, the natural product has been used as chewing gum for thousands of years. Santa Anna suggested to Adams that he experiment with chicle, so he added flavoring, which made his product both edible and an improvement over wax gum. Throughout the 1950’s, his new invention was sold at various pharmacies and when it started gaining popularity, Adams Sons and Company was formed in 1876, where he worked for the rest of his life. (source)