The phenomenon of Independent Multiple Discovery is interesting – how more than one person has made the same discovery without any knowledge of the other. Related to this – the distant cousin – is the Accidental Discovery. While one scenario shouts “Eureka!” the other mutters, “Oops, didn’t mean to do that”. However, at the end of the day they both celebrate, for they have come up with something new, planned or unplanned, whether by design or by dumb luck. This post lists several Accidental Discoveries that have been parlayed into fortunes and globally successful products.
20. Post-It Notes
In 1970, Spencer Silver, a researcher for 3M, had been trying to formulate a strong adhesive, but ended up only managing to create a very weak glue that could be removed almost effortlessly. He promoted his invention within 3M, but at the time nobody took notice. Four years later, Arthur Fry, a 3M colleague and member of his church choir, was irritated by the fact that the slips of paper he placed in his hymnal to mark the pages would usually fall out when the book was opened. One service, he recalled the work of Spencer Silver and later applied some of Silver’s weak yet non-damaging adhesive to his bookmarks. He found that the little sticky markers worked perfectly, and sold the idea to 3M through an internal idea incubator. Trial marketing began in 1977, and today it is hard to imagine life without the sticky post-it note.
Superglue came into being in 1942 when Dr Harry Coover was trying to isolate a clear plastic to make precision gun sights for handheld weaponry. For a while he was working with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates, which it was discovered polymerized on contact with moisture, causing all the test materials to bond together. This was not going to work for the task at hand and so research moved on. Six years later, Coover was working in a Tennessee chemical plant and realized the potential of the substance when testing showed that the adhesives required neither heat nor pressure to form a strong bond. Thus, after a certain amount of commercial refinement, Superglue (full name: Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Composition) was born. It was later used for treating injured soldiers in Vietnam – the adhesive could be sprayed on open wounds, stemming bleeding and allowing easier transportation of soldiers. A discovery made during an effort to improve guns ended up saving lives.
Although the science of fingerprinting began with the work of Francis Galton in the nineteenth century, detectives still had trouble locating the tell-tale marks. In 1982, some researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan cracked a fish tank. When they patched it together with superglue (cyanoacrylate), they noticed the fingerprints on the glass standing out in relief. The fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in the prints, rendering them highly visible. Cyanoacrylate is now an important weapon in the forensic scientist’s armoury.
Velcro was accidentally invented in 1948 by a Swiss engineer who had just been walking his dog. When George de Mestral got home, he noticed that both he and his pet were covered in burrs. Apparently acting on the impulse of an idea, he plucked one of the burrs from his cloth jacket and placed it under his microscope where under magnification the detail of the burr was revealed. It was covered with hooked strands, and these, he realised, would inevitably cling to the fur or cloth of whatever rubbed up against it. In the case of his jacket, Mistral reasoned that the hooks formed an even firmer bond by slotting into tiny loops in the fabric. Mistral realized that the microscopic principle could be used to develop a fastening device, but it took him several years to perfect his invention. The main difficulty was getting the ‘loop’ side of the fastener right (the ‘hook’ side was more straightforward). The solution turned out to be sewing the loops from nylon under infra-red light. In 1951, Mistral applied for a Swiss patent for an early version of his fastening system and named it ‘Velcro’, after the French words velours (meaning velvet) and crochet (hook). In 1955, he obtained a US patent for his invention, and two years later Velcro went into production in Manchester, New Hampshire. Before long, the company was selling 60 million yards per annum.
Teflon was invented in 1938 by a DuPont research chemist named Roy J plunkett. One day he was experimenting with a coolant called TRE (tetrafluoroethylene) to establish its suitability for refrigeration purposes. For some reason, the pressurised cylinder of the gas filled earlier by Plunkett’s assistant failed to discharge properly when the valve was opened and, dismissing all safety rules they cut it open to see what had happened. Instead of a violent explosion, they found that the gas had solidified inside the cylinder to form a strangely slippery white powder. Tests revealed that it was inert and had an extremely high melting point. DuPont registered Teflon as a trademark in 1945 and started marketing products coated with the miracle lubricant the following year. Since then, Teflon has not only been used for a variety of things, from frying pans to microchips to rocket shields and space suits andn even bad guys as the nickname of the “Teflon Don” John Gotti, to whom no charges would stick.
n 1900, Jaques E Brandenberger saw red wine spill onto a restaurant tablecloth, and legend has it that he decided at that point there must be a way to protect fine materials from this type of damage. But inventing a clear flexible film that could provide a waterproof layer for tablecloths was not as easy as he had expected. His experiments seemed only to render the cloth stiff, not waterproof. Brandenberger noticed at one point that the coating on on one version peeled off as a transparent film. Instinct said that it was not a useless by-product but perhaps a shift in the direction of his work and he set about developing a machine for the mass manufacture of what we know today as ‘cellophane’.
In 1859 Robert Chesebrough went to seek his fortune in the oilfields of Pennsylvania. Soon after his arrival, Chesebrough noticed the oil workers complaining about something they called ‘rod wax’, a substance that formed on their drilling equipment and gummed it up. It’s single redeeming feature was its ability to speed up the healing of small cuts and bruises. Chesebrough took a sample of ‘rod wax’ back to his laboratory in Brooklyn. In time he determined how to isolate the substance from the ordinary petroleum and started to experiment with it, subjecting himself to all manner of cuts and burns before applying the petroleum jelly. Everything healed magnificently. To popularise his invention, Chesebrough have it the name ‘Vaseline’ (from Wasser, the German for water and Elaion, Greek for oil). Then he embarked on a singularly masochistic road show, demonstrating his faith in his product by wounding himself in public before applying it. Soon he was selling a jar a minute. His customers used Vaseline for every conceivable purpose from cleaning nasal congestion to cleaning furniture. By the end of the nineteen-century, Chesebrough was extremely rich and his petroleum jelly was breaking into Europe. Cheseborough persisted with his ‘practise what you preach’ attitude toward Vaseline throughout his life. Shortly before he died at the impressive age of 96, he revealed that he had been eating a spoonful of the stuff every day for many years.
13. Stainless Steel
Harry Brearley was working to prevent corrosion in rifle barrels when he accidentally invented something interesting. Brearley had a background in steel. His father was a steel melter and young Harry had followed his father into the industry. Through years of private study and night school he became an expert in the analysis of steel and in 1908, at the age of 37, was given the opportunity to set up the Brown Firth Laboratories for research purposes where he was given the job of looking at improving rifle barrels. The problem: when the gun was fired, the heat and gases generated would quickly erode away the inner barrel. Brearley was given the task of finding a steel that would not erode away. Brearley made history on 13 August 1913 when his mix 0.24% carbon and 12.8% chromium with steel created the first ever stainless steel. And although Brearley didn’t immediately realise what he had created, the resistance of the metal to acids such as vinegar and lemon juice soon pointed him in the right direction. At that time cutlery was made from silver or carbon steel, or plated with nickel. None of which were resistant to rust, so Brearley launched his ‘rustless steel’, later renamed as the more catchy stainless steel.
12. Blue Jeans
Jacob Youphes was born in 1834 in Riga Latvia. He came to the US and then to San Francisco in the 1854 and changed his name to Jacob Davis. He operated a tailor shop in New York City and Augusta, Maine. By 1869, he had opened a tailor shop on the town’s main thoroughfare, Virginia Street, where e began fabricating wagon covers and tents from a rugged off-white duck cloth sold by San Francisco’s Levi Strauss & Co. In 1868 Jacob settled in Reno, Neveda tailoring fine clothing and manufacturing utilitarian items such as tents and horse blankets from “duck” (a sturdy cotton fabric) with copper rivets for added strength. In the late 1870s a woman came to him for a pair of “cheap” pants for her “large” husband who had the habit of going through pants rather quickly. Having found that thread alone did not always adequately hold the pockets onto work pants, Jacob decided to try out rivets, which had proven their worth on horse blankets on the pockets for these pants. By 1871 Davis was routinely using rivets on the pants he made, first on duck, soon after on denim, and was beginning to be imitated by other tailors. He contacted Levi Strauss, his fabric supplier, to help him apply for a patent. The patent application was rejected several times by the patent office but finally granted jointly in the names of Davis and Levi Strauss & Company on May 20, 1873. The term “Levi’s,” though, was not the company’s–it originated with the public, just as the public invented the term “coke” for Coca-Cola. But when the public started referring to the pants generically as “Levi’s,” the company quickly trademarked it. Unfortunately, because Davis didn’t insist on his name being included in the product name, Levi Strauss’ name alone became a synonym for the pants, leading to the spread of a myth that Strauss invented them.
In 1928, British researcher Alexander Fleming unexpectedly discovered penicillin, the active ingredient in a mold that has potent infection-fighting abilities. At the time, Fleming determined that the penicillin was too unstable to work with. However, within 10 years, the Oxford team of Howard Florey and Ernst Chain was able to successfully purify a form of penicillin in sufficient concentration to offer therapeutic value in the treatment of human disease. With the help of the British government, Florey and Chain used a beer-brewing technology to produce the quantities of moldy liquor needed for large-scale penicillin production. When demand outstripped their production capacity, Florey went to the United States to establish mass-production agreements with U.S. pharmaceutical companies.
10. The Microwave Oven
During World War II, two scientists invented the magnetron, a tube that produces microwaves. It was during a radar-related research project around 1946 that Dr. Percy Spencer, a self-taught engineer with the Raytheon Corporation, was testing a new type of magnetron when he discovered that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. This intrigued Dr. Spencer, so he tried another experiment. This time he placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and the popcorn popped all over his lab. Spencer decided to put the magnetron tube near an egg, which also cooked. The scientist thought if popcorn and a egg can be cooked that quickly, why not other foods? In 1947, Raytheon built the Radarange, the first microwave oven in the world. It was almost 6 feet (1.8 m) tall, weighed 750 pounds (340 kg) and cost close to $5,000. It was water-cooled, so also required built-in plumbing.
9. Ice Cream Cones
Before 1904, ice cream was served on dishes. It wasn’t until the World’s Fair of that year, held in St Louis, Missouri, that two seemingly unrelated food items were paired. It happened that the weather during the event was very hot, and given the combination of temperature and crowds, a stall selling ice cream quickly ran out of dishes. The neighboring stall was selling a type of wafer waffle – and since his business was lagging he offered to help out the overly busy ice cream vendor. The spontaneous innovation was to roll his Zalabia into cone shapes and place the ice cream on top, which was an instant hit. This may be legend to a certain, as it was known that edible cones were being served in England prior to the 1904 World’s Fair.
Although Dom Perignon did not invent Champagne, he did develop many advances in production of the drink, including holding the cork in place with a wire collar to withstand the fermentation pressure. In France, the first sparkling Champagne was created accidentally; its pressure led it to be called “the devil’s wine” as bottles exploded or the cork jolted away.
7. Potato chips/crisps
During one summer of 1853, Chef George Crum of Moon Lake Lodge Restaurant, in Saratoga Springs, New York, prepared the regular French-fried potatoes for a fastidious dinner guest who promptly rejected them for being too thick. Chef Crum served that diner with a thinner batch which was also rejected. Annoyed and exasperated, the chef decided to get back at the tough diner by making the potatoes so thin and crisp that even the fork could not skewer them. Instead of riling that diner, the paper-thin and crispy potato slices appealed to that diner so much he requested for more. Soon, all the other diners began to request for the paper-thin and crispy potato chips and they became a regular, house specialty item called Saratoga Chips on the menu. The popularity of the paper-thin potato chips grew quickly and soon it was packaged and sold as a portable convenience food. Eventually, Chef Crum opened his own chips restaurant.
6. The Slinky
Like Silly Putty, the Slinky was an accidental by-product of World War II research and development transformed into a hugely successful children’s toy. In 1943, engineer Richard James of greater Philadelphia was working in his home laboratory to invent a set of springs that could be used to support sensitive instruments on board ships and stabilize them even in rough seas. When he once accidentally knocked one of his springs off a shelf, James saw that, rather than flopping in a heap onto the floor, the spring “stepped” in a series of arcs from the shelf, to a stack of books, to a tabletop, to the floor, where it re-coiled itself and stood upright. He and his wife, who is credited with coming up with the name “Slinky”, founded James Industries, in Hollidaysburg, Pennsylvania, to market their product. Richard invented machines that could coil 80 feet of steel wire into a Slinky in about 10 seconds. By the time of its 50th anniversary (1995), that same company, using those same machines, had sold over a quarter of a billion Slinkys, all over the world. While the toy is cool, it can be argued that the real invention was the machine that can take 80 feet of steel wire and coil it into a Slinky in 10 seconds. Now that’s an invention.
5. The Pacemaker
Canadian, John Hopps invented the first cardiac pacemaker. Hopps was trained as an electrical engineer at the University of Manitoba and joined the National Research Council in 1941, where he conducted research on hypothermia. While experimenting with radio frequency heating to restore body temperature, Hopps made an unexpected discovery: if a heart stopped beating due to cooling, it could be started again by artificial stimulation using mechanical or electric means. This lead to Hopps’ invention of the world’s first cardiac pacemaker in 1950. His device was far too large to be implanted inside of the human body. It was an external pacemaker.
4. The Popsicle
In 1905, the Popsicle was invented by an 11 year-old Frank Epperson. He had left his fruit flavored soda outside on the porch with a stir stick in it. The drink froze overnight, and the next morning he discovered the frozen treat. He originally called it the “Epsicle” (no relation to the Epilady), which his children later re-named to the more palatable “Popsicle.” [Image credit: John Coulter]
Medieval wine merchants used to boil the H20 out of wine so the cargo would keep better and take up less space at sea. Removing the water also made the load less expensive to ship, since tax was assessed by volume. Legend has it that the intent was to add the water removed by distillation back to the brandy before consumption, essentially to turn it back into wine, but after having been stored in wooden casks, the resulting product had improved over the original distilled spirit.
Wow man. The unintentional discovery of d-lysergic acid diethylamide tartrate-LSD-25 took place in in 1938 by Swiss scientist Albert Hoffman. The actual discovery of LSD as a hallucinogen occurred when Dr Hoffman was involved in pharmaceutical research in Basel, Switzerland, hoping to produce drugs that would help ease the pain of childbirth. Having synthesized what would later become known as LSD; Hoffman catalogued the untested substance and placed it in storage, after finding nothing particularly interesting about it during the initial analysis. Five years later Hoffman discovered the true properties of the compound after inadvertently absorbing a dose of it when handling the chemical at work without wearing gloves. On his bicycle ride back home he observed “an uninterrupted stream of fantastic pictures, extraordinary shapes with intense, kaleidoscopic play of colors”. Early researcher Dr Richard Alpert claimed to have administered LSD to 200 test subjects by 1961, and reported that 85% of his test subjects said that the experience was the “most educational” of their lives. Francis Crick, the Nobel Prize-winning father of modern genetics, was under the influence of LSD when he first deduced the double-helix structure of DNA nearly 50 years ago.
Wilhelm Roentgen, Professor of Physics in Worzburg, Bavaria, was the first person to discover the possibility of using electromagnetic radiation to create what we now know as the x-ray. Roentgen was exploring the path of electrical rays passing from an induction coil through a partially evacuated glass tube. Although the tube was covered in black paper and the room was completely dark, he noticed that a screen covered in fluorescent material was illuminated by the rays. He later realised that a number of objects could be penetrated by these rays, and that the projected image of his own hand showed a contrast between the opaque bones and the translucent flesh. He later used a photographic plate instead of a screen, and an image was captured. For the first time ever the internal structures of the body could be made visible without the necessity of surgery. The first image created by his x-ray Roentgen was an image of his wife’s hand, noted by the wedding ring. *****
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