Accidental Discoveries

After reading through this list, the only thing I could think of is: what discoveries have been lost due to small chance? How many discoveries have been made, but never told about? What applications of discoveries have we missed?

Take a look at the Top Ten Accidental Discoveries…

By Natasha Stillwell, April 19, 2004

Just this week I was filming an item with Pam Charbonneau at the Guelph Turf Institute. We were discussing lawn care and Pam introduced me to “Diatomaceous Earth”. It’s ground up fossilized diatoms- prehistoric algae and if you look at it under a microscope, it resembles tiny shards of glass. It’s used in industry for filters but by accident, someone discovered it was a great insecticide. The DE lacerates the insect’s exoskeleton then mops up its body fluids. The insect dies from dehydration. DE is still undergoing research as an organic lawn insecticide but it did motivate me to explore what other accomplishments we owe to serendipity.

So say hello to this weeks Top Ten Accidental Discoveries:

10. The Popsicle
Frank Epperson was but a young lad of eleven, when he accidentally came up with what some would later describe as the most important invention of the twentieth century. Who would say that exactly I’m not sure, but Lady Luck was surely smiling the day Frank, mixed himself a drink of soda water powder and water- a popular drink back in 1905. For some reason he never got round to drinking it and left it on the back porch overnight with the stirring stick still in it. Of course, when the temperature dropped overnight, the mixture froze and Frank had a stick of frozen soda water to show his friends at school. Eighteen years later, Frank remembered the incident and started producing what he called ‘Epsicles’ in seven fruit flavors. The name never took off, but today over three million ‘Popsicles’ are sold every year.

9. Velcro
In the early 1940’s, Swiss inventor George de Mestral was walking his dog. When he got home, he noticed his dog’s coat and his pants were covered with cockleburrs. When he took a closer look under the microscope he discovered their natural hook-like shape.

He recognized the potential for a new fastener, but it took him eight years to perfect the invention. Eventually he developed two strips of nylon fabric, one containing thousands of small hooks, just like the burrs, and the other with soft loops, just like the fabric of his pants. When the two strips were pressed together, they formed a strong bond, but one that’s easily separated, lightweight, durable, and washable. Voila Velcro!

8. Superglue
Superglue, or Krazy Glue, is actually a substance called ‘cyanoacrylate’. Dr. Harry Coover accidentally discovered it twice, the first time in 1942, when he was trying to develop an optically clear plastic for gun sights and the second time nine years later, when he was trying to develop a heat-resistant polymer for jet canopies. On both occasions his new product proved to be too sticky for the job, in fact he got into trouble when he stuck together and ruined a very expensive pair of glass lenses. Finally he realized his super sticking glue might have a use and in 1958 it was marketed as Superglue.

In fact Superglue turned out to be more than just useful. It saved the lives of countless soldiers in Vietnam when it was used in to seal battlefield wounds before the injured could be transported to a hospital.

7. Post-it Notes
In 1970, Spencer Silver was working at the 3M research labs trying to develop a strong adhesive. What he actually came up with, was weaker than what had already been developed. It stuck, but then it easily unstuck.

That seemed like a pretty useless invention, until 4 years later when a colleague was singing in the church choir. He used markers to keep place in the hymn book but they kept falling out. So he coated them with Spencer’s glue. They stayed in place but came off easily without damaging the pages. The ‘Post-it note” was born and today they are a nuisance in just about every office around the world.

6. Scotchgard
Another 3M invention makes it into the Top Ten at No 6. Back in 1953, Patsy Sherman was trying to develop a rubber material that didn’t deteriorate when it came into contact with aircraft fuel. An assistant spilled one of the experimental compounds on her new tennis shoes. She was none too happy when it refused to budge even with soap or alcohol, but Sherman was inspired. She set to work improving the compound’s liquid repellency and just 3 years later Scotchgard hit the market, on a mission to protect the world’s suede shoes.

5. Safety Glass
Safety glass, the kind that doesn’t splinter on impact, is everywhere these days, but when Edouard Benedictus, a French scientist was working in his lab at the turn of the last century there was no such thing. But one day in 1903 he accidentally knocked a glass flask to the floor, heard it break, but was amazed to see that all the broken pieces still hung together. Turns out the flask had been full of a liquid plastic. It had evaporated, but a thin coat of the stuff got left behind and this is what was holding the flask together.

Around that time there was a rash of car accidents in Paris as the French got to grips with traveling faster than horses, and the most common form of injury were cuts from shattered windshields. Edouard saw an immediate use for his discovery, but setting a precedent rigorously followed for most of the rest of the century, the car industry rejected this life-saving safety feature on the grounds of expense. It wasn’t until WW 1, when his invention proved a great success for lenses in gas masks, that the automobile industry reversed its position and safety glass’s major application became car windshields.

4. Cellophane
Back in 1908 Jacques Brandenberger, a Swiss chemist working for a French textile firm, was trying to make his fortune with a stain proof tablecloth. He got the stain proof part right by coating the cloth with a thin layer of viscose, but the fortune never came. Apparently people liked stains on their tablecloths. Fortunately Jacques had a bit of a eureka moment and realized the potential of his product to package food- after all it was airtight and waterproof. But it was another ten years before he perfected the machine to produce his cellophane and its delights became available to the public.

3. Vulcanized Rubber
In 1496 Christopher Columbus brought back the first rubber balls from the West Indies. This seemed like a magical discovery except that rubber rotted, it smelled terrible, got too sticky when warm and too rigid when cold, and in the end people pretty much gave up trying to think of a way to make it useful.

Some three hundred years later Charles Goodyear would not be defeated by rubber and resolved to solve these problems. In 1839 he tried boiling it with magnesia, lime, bronze powder and nitric acid, but to no avail. Finally he tried sulphur but that didn’t work either until he accidentally dropped the mixture onto a hot stove. Vulcanization, the process of treating rubber with sulphur at great heat, named after the Roman god of fire was born! In a matter of seconds Charlie had improved rubber’s strength and resilience, reduced its stickiness and stopped it smelling.

This should have been a great day for Charlie, after all vulcanized rubber is now used in everything from rubber bands to hockey pucks, but even though his discovery made millions for others, Charlie died a pauper.

2. X- Rays
X-Rays were discovered in 1895 by the German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Röntgen. He was actually studying cathode rays, the phosphorescent stream of electrons used today in everything from televisions to fluorescent light bulbs.

Willie wanted to know if he could see cathode rays escaping from a glass tube completely covered with black cardboard. He couldn’t, but by chance he did notice a glow appearing in his darkened laboratory several feet away. At first he thought there was a tear in the cardboard allowing light from the high-voltage coil inside the tube to escape, but he soon realized rays of light were right passing through the cardboard.

He named these penetrated rays, X-rays and found that as well as penetrating solids they were pretty handy at recording images of human skeletons on photographic negatives. Doctors soon adopted X-rays as a standard medical tool and in 1901 Röntgen took home one of the first Nobel prizes.

1. Penicillin
Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin in 1928. Of course he wasn’t actually looking for it at the time- he was researching the ‘flu. He noticed that one of his petri dishes had become contaminated with mould. Other scientists may have recoiled in horror at this result of shoddy work practice, but not Alexander. He chose to investigate.

Whatever this intruder was, it was killing off the Staphylococcus bug – a bug causing everything from boils to toxic shock syndrome. Eventually he identified it as the fungus Penicillium notatum and it put the knife into Staph by means of a chemical that destroyed its ability to build cell walls. Being a scientist, he thought long and hard about what to call this new chemical, a chemical released from the fungus Penicillium notatum.

That’s right he called it penicillin. Nice one Alex. Unfortunately naturally occurring penicillin isn’t very stable and thus not very useful. Fleming had found a wonder drug, but couldn’t do much with it. Luckily just three years later two Oxford researchers created a stable form and today it’s one of our most important tools in the fight against disease.

4 Responses to “Accidental Discoveries”

  1. Katy says:

    Makes me think of what mistakes I’ve made that could’ve made me famous…

  2. Louis Koutroukides says:

    I have the World’s greatest ever Modern Discovery. Not only in words, but also with Medical proof from a Renowned, London Hospital. I can cure Aids, Cancer and Ulcers.
    Impossible? Unthinkable maybe. But that was said about Penicillin too.
    My only problem is that nobody believes me. to make matters worse, I have been threatened with being imprisoned for meddling in Scientific matters that I am not qualified.
    One day someone will believe me, and put my cure to the test. Will you?
    thank you

    • Asya says:

      hmm.. i read this article for my biology and ethics debate class and we are arguing just that; discoveries made by chance are they to pursue self-interest or the interest of the public. Whatever it is you have discovered you must have hard evidence and proof that your cures for these epedimic diseases are legit. The finding of diseases that are so broad nad have viral variation will cause chaos among scoiety if it is proven correct you must be 100% sure. I belive in chance and great minds do not have to be mad scientists. “imagination/curiosity is much more important then knowledge.

  3. notapersonwhocares says:

    Uhh… I don’t go for this kind of stuff… But I guess you could learn from it… but dude who should care anyway?

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