Which Major Inventions Were Actually An Accident?

Any invention, no matter how small, plays a significant role in terms of overall progress, from Silly Putty all the way up to the Large Hadron Collider. Every invention serves a unique purpose in its own way.

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It takes years of research, hard work and dedication before completing a unique end product, but sometimes, great inventions also have a bit of luck on their side.  

Don’t Believe Me? Here are some of the most popular accidental inventions.

1) Velcro

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Velcro fastener on a sling bag

This temporary fastener can be found on an array of products, such as children’s shoes, laptop bags, jackets, vests etc. Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral, on one of his hiking trips in 1941, found sticky little plants known as cockleburs all over his clothes. He got home and took out a microscope, only to find that the cockleburs actually had microscopic hooks that latched onto the fabric of his clothes

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Hooks of  velcro

He then took this information and devised a material that could be used to keep things easily stuck together without adhesive or tightness. Thus, the idea of Velcro was born. He replicated the effect of cockleburs artificially.

One of its most notable clients in the 1960s was NASA. The agency used the material in flight suits and to help secure items in zero gravity.

2) Microwave ovens

Feel like having yesterday’s leftover pasta or munching on some delicious biryani? No problem, just put it in the microwave oven, set it to heat for a desired time – and voila! Delicious, smoking hot food is ready to eat in no time.  Microwave ovens are one of the few essential appliances that are found in almost every household.  

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Modern microwave ovens

Percy Spencer, an engineer at Raytheon, was working on building magnetrons for radar sets when he noticed the candy bar melting in his pocket. He decided to test this heating effect on other foods, such as popcorn kernels. They all started popping one by one. In 1947, he built the first microwave oven, the Radarange, which weighed 750 pounds, was 5 1/2 feet tall, and cost a whopping $5,000. Since then, microwave ovens have undergone many changes. Today, you can buy one for as little as $150.

3) Post-it notes

Want to scribble random notes on a page of that book you’re reading? Feel like leaving some instructions on the refrigerator for your spouse? Don’t worry… Post-it notes are there to save the day. A Post-it note is a small piece of paper with a strip of low-tack adhesive on the back that allows it to be temporarily attached to documents, walls, refrigerators and just about anything else without ruining the object to which it is attached.

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The extremely popular Post-it notes

3M was trying to create super-strong adhesives for use in the aerospace industry when building planes. Instead of a super-strong adhesive, however, they accidentally managed to create an incredibly weak, pressure-sensitive adhesive agent called Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres. Since it was originally a “failure”, the company didn’t put the glue to use until 3 years later. Enter Accident #2. Art Fry, a 3M employee, sung in the choir and kept losing his song page markers. In a stroke of genius, he applied the weak glue to the back of the page markers. That’s when he noticed that the marker came off without leaving any residue on the paper. That is how every office’s favorite form of stationery came into existence!

4) Teflon

Teflon or Polytetrafluoroethylene(PTFE) is the polymer that prevents your perfectly cooked Spanish omlette and delicious breakfast pancakes from sticking to the pan. In 1938, Roy Plunkett a scientist working for DuPont, was researching alternative refrigerants that were home-friendly and non-toxic. Experimenting with one such potential alternative refrigerant, tetrafluorethylene (TFE),  Dr. Plunkett ended up creating around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small cylinders. After opening one of the containers, he found that  his experimental gas was gone. All that was left was a strange, white, extremely slippery substance that was resistant to extreme heat and was non-corrosive. 

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Teflon coating gives frying pans their non-stick ability.

Three years later, the substance was patented and trademarked under the name ‘Teflon’. Initially, it was used in military and automotive applications, followed by its entry into the non-stick cookware section.

5) Saccharin (artificial sweetener)

This is the ingredient that people looking to cut down on their sugar intake really love. It satisfies their sweet cravings, but also keeps their calorie intake level to a minimum.

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Diet coke wouldn’t exist without saccharin.

It was discovered in 1879 by researcher Constantine Fahlberg, who was working at Johns Hopkins University. On one particular day, after working in the lab, Fahlberg was at home, about to tuck into his meal, when he noticed that the bread roll he’d just taken a bite out of tasted incredibly sweet. That’s when he realized that he had forgotten to wash his hands before lunch. While working with coal tar, a chemical had spilled on his hands which made anything that he ate taste sweet. He didn’t know exactly which chemical, so he set out to taste every single chemical in his workplace. Doesn’t seem particularly safe, but it was all for the sake of SCIENCE! Thanks to his discovery, we now have beverages like Coke Zero and Diet Pepsi on the market.

6) Pencillin

Before this discovery and the age of antibiotics, common illnesses were rampant and lethal. Even minor symptoms like colds and fevers killed more people than you could imagine. The average life expectancy was barely above the age of 50. The age of antibiotics all began when Alexander Fleming took an August vacation from his day-to-day work in the lab investigating staphylococci, known commonly as staph.

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Alexander Fleming-The inventor of Penicillin

Upon his return, one month later, he found a strange fungus on a culture that he had left in his lab—a fungus that had killed off all the surrounding bacteria in the culture. This was the biggest turning point in the history of modern medicine. Numerous antibiotics derive their healing effect directly from the bacteria-phobic properties of penicillin.

7) Super Glue

Also known as cyanoacrylate, this is a special kind of glue that has an extremely potent bonding strength. Accidentally created by Harry Coover during World War 2, it was originally meant to be a clear plastic that could be used to create transparent gun sights. The solution didn’t work particularly well in terms of providing transparency to the gun sights, but  it did have extremely strong bonding power.

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Super glue possesses excellent bonding power.

Its potential was realized almost 9 years later, when Coover was working on a project to develop heat-resistant acrylate polymers for jet canopies. The superglue solution polymerized almost instantly, without any application of heat or pressure. Thus, superglue came into existence in its current form.

8) Play-Doh

In our childhood days, getting creative by making beautiful animal figurines using the synthetic, sweet-smelling clay known as  Play-Doh was always fun.  It is a parent’s nightmare and every child’s weapon of choice for dirtying a newly painted wall or sofa covers. Ironically, Play-Doh was initially created as a cleaning product. It didn’t do well in the market. Kutol, the company manufacturing Play-Doh, noticed that children were actually using the product to make decorations and arts and crafts projects. Kutol decided to remove the cleansing element from the clay and gave it different scents. The rest is history. That key marketing decision saved the company from bankruptcy.

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Creativity and Play-Doh go hand in hand!

The world would’ve been a very different place without some of these inventions. Penicillin is widely considered to be the greatest gift to humanity. Its invention was a major breakthrough in the field of medical science and saves countless lives to this day. If anything, penicillin and some of these other inventions prove that not all accidents are detrimental!

References

  1. HowstuffWorks
  2. Popularmechanics
  3. Gizmodo
  4. Todayifoundout
  5. Wikipedia
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About the Author:

Ishan is a Mechanical Engineer from Mumbai University, India and is obsessed with science, food and all things football. He is a self proclaimed cyclist, runner and a professional procrastinator.

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