Society - History
By: - at June 6, 2013

15 Accidental Inventions That Were the Result of a Mistake

Invention MistakeMany of us do not realize that a great number of things we use on a daily basis were discovered completely unintentionally. Medicines, equipment, materials, and foods that we rely on, sometimes in dire emergencies, were not always created with purpose. Often times, very important things have been invented in an attempt to create something else entirely. No matter how they came into existence, there are several inventions that our lives would not be the same (or as good) without. Find out what things we use constantly in the modern world that would not exist without all the right accidents occurring.

15)  Penicillin

Alexander Fleming, Inventor of Penicillin:
Alexander Fleming

Very rarely does poor housekeeping result in medical breakthroughs. Alexander Fleming was a highly ranked medic throughout World War I. His experiences with war and injury made him very familiar with antiseptics and their shortcomings. He knew there had to be a way to fight bacteria without all the harmful potential that antiseptics possess.

Fleming, according to "The Birth of Penicillin" by R. Hare, was studying a bacterium called staphylococci when he went on vacation with his family. Not a meticulously clean man, he simply stacked his petri dishes on top of each other and left. When he returned, he found that a fungus had begun to grow on the samples. The bacteria close to the fungus had been completely destroyed, while the dishes father away were unaffected. It was clear that the fungus had killed the bacteria.

After months of dabbling, Fleming named the substance Penicillin and released it. Other scientists stabilized the liquid and made it into the antibiotic that we recognize today. This was hands-down one of the most important medical breakthroughs in history, and Fleming received a Nobel Prize for it in 1945, according to the Nobel Foundation.

14)  Dynamite

Alfred Nobel, Inventor of Dynamite:
Alfred Nobel

The Nobel Prize was named for a man named Alfred Nobel. This is the same man who invented dynamite, a substance that has caused a lot of death in the world. His intentions were not violent, however, as he only wanted to produce an explosive stable enough to be safely controlled. Mines and factories had great need for this kind of explosive. In the 1860s, Nobel began experimenting with nitroglycerin to see if he could stabilize it more than what then-modern scientists had been able to achieve.

Nobel tried endlessly without success to make nitroglycerin a more controllable substance. After many unfortunate explosions and the loss of family members, most notably his brother, Nobel still refused to give up. One day, he accidentally dropped a vial of the explosive on a floor covered in sawdust. He was certain as it fell that he was going to die, but then the sawdust absorbed the nitroglycerin, and nothing happened. Nobel found he was still able to safely ignite the sawdust later, at his own leisure, but that the spark was not as significant as the substance's original combustive properties. His next step was to find a material that would preserve the dynamite but allow for powerful ignition at any time.

After trying many other mediums to stabilize the nitroglycerin, Nobel found that the mud in front of his own house worked the best. His region, Krummel, possesses a very different kind of mud than the rest of the world. Once he discovered that mud was the answer, he was able to patent one of the most profitable inventions in history, according to Schück and Sohlman. Some speculate that he began the Nobel Peace Prize organization in regret of the invention he created, which ended up causing much more death and destruction than Nobel had intended, according to the Nobel Foundation.

13)  Vulcanized Rubber
An article from Science claims that cured rubber is a concept dating back to the prehistoric era. Rubber is a natural substance that can be tapped out of rubber trees, while synthetic rubber is the stable, clean, adapted version of natural rubber. The material on our tires and covering the bottoms of our shoes is vulcanized rubber. This is what Charles Goodyear accidentally invented in 1839, while he was conducting experiments on natural rubber.

Vulcanized Rubber

The benefits and potential of rubber were well known in the early 19th century, but scientists could not figure out how to keep the rubber from becoming brittle and unstable when exposed to extreme heat and cold. Charles Goodyear has been ardently trying for years to find a substance that could stabilize rubber to make it more dependable and useful. However, one day, Goodyear accidentally spilled some rubber on a heated stove he was working next to, along with lead and sulfur. When cleaning, he realized that the mixture was solid but remained usable.

This was the beginning of vulcanized rubber. According to "1493: Uncovering the New World that Columbus" created, Thomas Hancock patented it in 1844, but credit for the discovery of it is generally attributed to Goodyear. Vulcanized rubber completely revolutionized the manufacturing world and remains incredibly useful today.

12)  Viagra
Accidental DiscoveryThis one surprises many people, because Viagra's result is such a strange reaction to discover accidentally. However, this is just what happened to English scientists in the early 1990s. Chemists were studying a compound called Sildenafil for its potential treatment of angina pectoris and hypertension. In other words, Viagra was originally intended to help improve heart health.

The study revealed that though nothing really improved with the test subjects' hearts, there was a great deal of action going on in the males' genital regions. The chemists realized what they had stumbled upon, quickly changed their game plan, and began to market Sildenafil as Viagra for the treatment of erectile dysfunction. There is a great deal of middle-aged men out there who are extremely grateful to this happy accident.

11)  Microwave Oven
Microwave InventionThe microwave revolutionized modern cuisine. It enabled people to prepare food in far less time than they could with a traditional oven. Critics argue that microwaves lose a lot of a food's texture, flavor, and nutrients, but the fact remains that cooking an entire chicken in just a few moments is simply a marvel. Many college students rely solely on a microwave to make it through the few years, so imagine if this accidental invention had never taken place. In a world where men and women go to work, clean, and raise kids, putting together a meal entirely in the oven can be very challenging. Many homes use their microwave ovens every single day, thanks to Percy Spencer's incidental discovery.

Percy Spencer, an engineer who taught himself, worked for a company named Raytheon, which had recently procured magnetron technology after its use in World War II. When Spencer was working in an active area, he noticed in his pocket a melted candy bar. This prompted him to try popcorn, eggs, and other food on magnetic places and activating them. Soon after came the box, and according to the patent (2495429), in 1945, Raytheon had the patent to the technology behind the microwave oven. The first publicly available microwave arrived two years later standing at almost 6 feet tall, according to Raytheon.

The microwave first became publicly popular in 1967, when the countertop Radarange was released. In today's dollars, it would have cost almost $3,500, according to Ohio Historical Society. Things picked up very quickly after that, and many homes today would not be the same without their microwaves.

10)  Pacemaker
The Pacemaker is another groundbreaking medical discovery that has saved the lives of many people. A man named Wilson Greatbatch took the work of other scientists before him and greatly improved upon it. The motivation for his work was one big mistake.

Pacemaker Invention
By Steven Fruitsmaak [GFDL or CC-BY-3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Greatbatch had been working with other scientists, trying to record the sounds of a human heart in the 1950s. He needed a resistor to complete the circuit of the device he was constructing, and when he dipped his hand into his toolbox, he pulled out and incorrectly sized resistor, according to CPA Global. The measurements were not far off, but they did create a pulse in the circuit that exactly matched the rate of a human heart at rest.

Immediately realizing his good fortune, he set up shop in an old barn and proceeded to discover a way to make the device portable and small enough to implant. He achieved this in 1957 and received a patent, according to "Permanent Transvenous Pacing in 1962" by V. Parsonnet. Many of us know someone alive today with the help of a pacemaker, and Greatbatch's discovery helped lead us to the pacemaking technology that exists today.

9)  Plastic
While natural, plastic-like materials have been used throughout the world for thousands of years, the modern, ubiquitous polyethylene that we all use today turned up incidentally about 75 years ago. According to ICIS, ICI scientists Reginald Gibson and Eric Fawcett were attempting to create a substance that could withstand great pressure. Unfortunately, their experiments resulted in nothing but a group of explosions and outspoken safety concerns from the scientific community.


Progress came to halt when Azko Nobel stopped further work on the project. Fawcett knew his polymer of ethylene had potential, and he was very disappointed to be unable to continue. Carol Kennedy describes his efforts to turn the scientific community in his favor as the "Fawcett Disclosure." Later on that same year, three men named Williams, Perrin, and Paton continued Gibson's work with ethylene. While they were submitting the material to pressure, the container leaked, and oxygen seeped in. Somehow, just the right amount of oxygen necessary to improve stability made its way into the vessel and forever changed the view on Polyethylene. From there, the development of plastic took off, aiding manufacturing efforts, war efforts, and finally working its way into our homes.

8)  Potato Chips
The invention of potato chips has become something of a legend. Once upon a time, specifically August 24, 1853 in Saratoga Springs, New York, a very difficult customer sat down at the hotel restaurant. According to Madehow, a man who was possibly named Cornelius Vanderbilt ordered sliced potatoes and repeatedly returned them to the chef. The patron was angry at the thickness and sogginess of his potatoes and complained ardently. Each time he received his re-cooked meal, he would send it back with the exact same critiques.

Potato Chips

George Crum, the chef behind the potatoes, became very annoyed with the constant complaints. He had probably never come across a customer so picky and so bold as to send a dish back repeatedly. To shut the customer up, he sliced the potatoes paper-thin and fried them. It is easy to imagine the smirk on his face as he brought this crunchy dish to the difficult patron of his restaurant. To everyone's surprise, the customer fell in love with the thin, crispy result. According to Civil War Interactive, this gave birth to the Saratoga Chip, later named the potato chip. It caught on immediately, and almost every North American today has had potato chips at least once. Potato chips are a national favorite that would never even have existed if not for one picky customer. Maybe sending food back is not such a bad idea after all.

This is a good example of an invention that started as a joke but ended up successfully.

7) Velcro
Endlessly useful though not always fashionable, Velcro is another important accidental invention. George de Mestral was an engineer who enjoyed walking his dog, according to Swissinfo. Upon returning from a nice walk in the Alps, he became bothered by the burrs sticking to his dog's fur. He examined them closely and saw that each spike on the burr had a hook at the end, so it could better attach to fibers. Velcro.uk explains that this inspired Mestral to attempt to recreate the natural phenomenon himself.

Velcro up close:

Mestral had to overcome some obstacles to achieving Velcro. At first, no one in the textile industry in Lyons would take him seriously. He could only find one weaver willing to help him make a cotton prototype. In Steven Strauss' "The Big Idea," we learn that Mestral realized that synthetic nylon fibers would prove much more useful than wearable, tear-able cotton. He then had difficulties designing loops that could be hooked and unhooked without issue. In desperation he cut off the tops of his loops, creating ideal hooks for Velcro-ing. The Syracuse Herald-Journal recalls the breakthrough of the new product on Aug. 25, 1958, excitedly describing the miraculous "zipperless zipper." The rest is history.

6)  Matches
Match InventionMatches are the essence of simplicity, and primitive sulfur-dipped forms of them have existed for at least one thousand years. These were far-removed from the safe matches that we use today. John Walker invented the friction matches so prevalent in today's society while trying to create a flammable solid that could transfer heat to wood in 1827. He may have gotten exactly what he wished for, but, according to the "Dictionary of National Biology," he came upon his invention quite by accident.

Walker was stirring a large pot of flammable substance that he intended to experiment with later. He stirred it with a wooden stick, and when he dropped the stick on his hearth, he found that the stick ignited. He realized the potential of friction to spark the necessary heat catalyst to create fire. It did not take him long to develop a matchbox with the friction strip attached that we recognize today, according to BBC.

Unfortunately, walker did not take up the opportunity to patent his discovery, and BBC reports that in 1829, Samuel Jones came out with an exact copy of Walker's product. Previously, Walker had been selling the matchboxes at one shilling per package, and since he was already well to do, he saw no need to monetarily possess his invention. Walker thus received no recognition for his creation until after his death 30 years later.

5)  Post-it Notes
Post-it Notes InventionAn invention that college students, teachers, researchers, moms, and more all rely on daily was not purposely created. The inventor of Post-it notes, Dr. Spencer Silver, worked tirelessly to try and create an extremely strong adhesive. What he ended up creating was a somewhat sticky glue that is reusable and responsive to pressure. Silver found himself with an invention that had no purpose, according to About Post-it Brand. One of Silver's colleagues, Art Fry, suggested using the glue for a bookmark in his hymnals. This gave birth to the concept behind Post-its.

Post-it notes have adhesive only on one portion of the paper, and are similar to what the USPS uses to label mail, except they prefer a full adhesive. The partial adhesiveness of Post-it notes is what makes them so useful for reminders, notes, and thoughts. Users can stick them one place, then pull them off without damaging anything and stick them somewhere else several more times.

This was undoubtedly a very useful accident. Even the signature yellow color of Post-it notes was accidentally chosen. According to an article titled "Why are Post-it Notes Yellow?" the yellow paper came from a lab next door to the Post-it studio. Yellow paper was all the lab had on hand, so that is what Post-its had to be. Very rarely do successful products just happen the way the Post-it notes did.

4)  Coca-Cola

Coca-Cola Invention
Photo by hovokhc

While the formula for Coca-Cola was no accident, Dr. John Smith Pemberton had no way of knowing his beverage would become a soft drink empire. His formula was for a new and improved version of Pemberton's French Wine Coca, which was a nerve tonic he had been popularly distributing for quite some time, according to the Columbus Ledger-Inquirer. When Atlanta, Georgia decided to enact prohibition, Nation's Restaurant News states that Pemberton removed the alcohol from his nerve tonic, and let it flow in pharmacy soda fountains at five cents per glass.

Back then, carbonated water was viewed as good for overall health, according to "Themes for Coca-Cola Advertising (1886-1999)." People immediately began reacting to the removal of alcohol and addition of some sugar to the old formula. Here was something sweet and unique-tasting that they could enjoy without getting drunk or woozy, and they believed it was generally making them healthier. The sweet, refreshing formula has been only slightly altered since then (except during the tragedy that was New Coke), and Coca-Cola still dominates the soda world. Medicine today has found that Coca-Cola and all sodas with sugar or artificial sweeteners is absolutely not beneficial to bodily health. We can still enjoy the results of Pemberton's accidental international beverage sensation, but everyone needs to consume this stuff in moderation.  There is also many uses for Coca-Cola other than to drink it.

3)  Slinky
Well, we have all heard what they say about Slinky's. Everybody knows them and the way they fall down the stairs. One of the world's most beloved toys came about from a man with slightly more technical intentions. CS Monitor describes Richard James as an engineer who wished to develop springs that could stabilize materials on U.S. Navy ships. He was motivated by World War II and wished to help his fellow Americans. Well, he may not have ended up helping the war cause, but he certainly lifted the spirits of all the kids waiting at home for their fathers to hopefully return from duty. The joys of Slinkys have carried through the decades and will likely remain popular for many decades more.

Slinky Invention

James knocked a spring off of his table accidentally, and he observed as it slinked down to the floor. He had a sudden epiphany. He told his wife, Betty, that the spring would make an excellent children's toy. He vigorously pursued perfecting the spring as a toy after the Navy showed no interest in his invention. His wife thought up the name "Slinky," and in 1945 at the toy's debut, they sold 400 Slinky's in an hour and a half, according to Mark Rich's Warman's 101 Greatest Baby Boomer Toys. Most kids today have owned at least one slinky, and they still never cease to amaze new youngsters. This invention was a truly happy accident.

2)  X-rays
X-rays are yet another invaluable medical resource to humans all over the world. We even X-ray our pets these days. X-radiation is radiation that falls on the electromagnetic scale just after ultra violet light. According to NASA, some nationalities refer to it as Röntgen Radiation, because Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. He called them X-rays to signify their unknown nature.


Röntgen experimented with Lenard and Crooks tubes until he realized that they could be emitting a new kind of ray. He began developing his research until he created a basic device to test his X-ray theory. He passed the device over his desk and found that the light penetrated through books and other objects. Weeks later, he took the first X-ray of his wife's hand. She was more than shocked by the ordeal, according to Gottfried Lanwehr's article in Singapore: World Scientific.

Now, X-rays are part of the every day medical world. Dentists use them to ensure proper tooth growth and maintenance is occurring. Doctors need them for patients with broken bones, bone tumors, and other ailments that cannot be seen through the layers of muscle and skin on a person's body. X-rays give us insight into the human body more quickly than any other technology (MRIs take about an hour to complete), and we have Röntgen's accidental discovery experimenting with fluorescent tubes to thank for it.

1)  Anesthesia
Anesthesia is an invention most of us cannot imagine living without. We all have heard the gruesome war stories of the past, where men would have to be strapped down and scream while doctors sawed off their infected limbs. Even smaller procedures such as tonsillectomies would be excruciating without the effects of anesthesia.

Anesthesia Needle

Back in the 1840s, there were not gaggles of young adults enjoying marijuana, LSD, and other party drugs. Instead, people threw parties at which they ingested large amounts of ether for entertainment. These get-togethers were popularly known as "ether frolics," and a doctor named Crawford Long observed that his friends would sustain injuries with no pain during these parties, according to his own entry in the "Southern Medical and Surgical Journal."

When he suggested that his friend use ether to undergo a surgery, he realized what a valuable discovery he had made in 1842. He did not reveal his findings until seven years later. A dentist name William Morton performed the first public showing of the effects of inhaling ether. From there, anesthetics have evolved tremendously into the complex but relatively safe procedure that we have come to expect today.

Final Words
So much of what we rely on today is the result of incredibly hard work on the part of scientists, designers, and chefs across the world. Sometimes, the results of this work was not at all what the inventors had intended, but they quickly realized what they had done and changed their focus to market their new product. Sometimes the intended result was achieved through accidental means. Considering all of these accidental inventions, it is easy to consider how many potential breakthroughs have yet to be stumbled upon. Someone, somewhere is about to fumble his or her way into a new product that could permanently shape the future of our culture or the entire world.





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