Though many of the world's top discoveries were born out of years of painstaking research, a surprising number of major inventions and scientific discoveries were found completely by accident. Some of the greatest discoveries of modern times have come to fruition through an unrelated experiment, a re-imagining of a common product or just plain negligence.
Discovery of Penicillin
Alexander Fleming may have discovered penicillin in 1928, but he certainly wasn't trying to. Fleming was searching for a cure for the flu when he noticed he had neglected to protect one of his bacterial cultures, and it had been inflected with a strange mold. Oddly enough, the mold seemed to be killing the bacteria. After Fleming identified the fungus as Penicillium notatum, two other researchers found a way to engineer a stable form of the mold -- penicillin -- which is used around the world to treat inflections.
A Reliable Explosive
Until the 1860s, nitroglycerin was a popular form of explosive. Unfortunately, it was highly unstable and had the unfortunate habit of unexpectedly blowing up. Alfred Nobel, the founder of the Nobel Prize and a nitroglycerin factory owner in the 1860s, stumbled upon dynamite when he dropped a vial of nitroglycerin, and it didn't immediately explode. After discovering the chemical in the vial had seeped into sawdust, Nobel began experimenting. He added in some kieselguhr as a further stabilizer and voila -- the reliable explosive we know today as dynamite.
In 1946, it was just another day at the laboratory for Percy Spencer. The engineer was testing a magnetron when he noticed the candy bar he had in his pocket had melted. It didn't take long for him to discover that microwave radiation from the magnetron had heated the chocolate. So began a series of experiments with Spencer radiating popcorn kernels and eggs, which promptly exploded. Nevertheless, Spencer was able to design the world's first commercial microwave, a device that has revolutionized cooking, by 1947.
A Sugar Substitute
When chemist Constantin Fahlberg tried his wife's dinner rolls, he was blown away by how delicious they tasted. But when he asked what she had done to them, she told him they were the same as she always made them. Fahlberg, who hadn't washed his hands since coming home from the lab, quickly realized what had happened. While experimenting with coal tar earlier, Fahlberg had spilled a chemical derivative called saccharin on his hand. Saccharin was found to be 300 times sweeter than sugar.
An Educational Putty
Few are aware that Play-Doh started out as a wallpaper cleaner for people with coal furnaces in their homes. Yet when the coal-heating industry went downhill, so did Cleo McVicker's invention, that is until his son Joseph McVicker noticed how the super-pliable goo could be marketed as a toy. In 1955, Joseph McVicker began testing the product with children. By the following year he had established Rainbow Crafts Co., a company whose only product was the brightly colored and successfully rebranded Play-Doh.
- Elliot Lee: Accidental Discoveries; Elliot Lee; October 2005
- Discovery News: Top 10 Accidental Inventions
- Impact Lab: 19 Accidental Discoveries that Changed the World; February 2010
- Xperimania: Accidental Discoveries
- Christian Science Monitor: The 20 Most Fascinating Accidental Inventions
- University of Houston: Alfred Nobel
- Photo Credit Ryan McVay/Photodisc/Getty Images
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