10 Accidental Inventions We Can’t Live Without
There are several things that can happen serendipitously. Whether it is unexpectedly meeting the love of your life, falling over your feet only to uncover a $20 bill, or finding a lucrative business opportunity after a brief chat with someone at a party you had initially no intention of attending, one thing is for certain — accidents are not always a bad thing. In fact, matters of happenstance have led us to some of the most pivotal inventions of our time. In the following list, you will learn that some of the most landmark advances in medicine, staple snack foods, and household commodities that we can’t imagine living without were all invented by mistake. In fact, one invention was intended as an act of spite, but later became one of the most regaled foods of a chef’s career. Other inventions have gone on to become office staples, while some have saved countless lives.
Are you inspired to head out into the world in hopes of your own occurrence of happenstance? Great! But first, take a gander at the 10 accidental inventions we can’t live without.
With one of our most vital organs being the heart, conditions such as arrhythmias — where the heart either beats too slow, too fast, or with an irregular rhythm — can have extremely detrimental effects on one’s everyday life. People may be unable to continue an active lifestyle, suffer breathing problems, and even subsequent organ damage that can lead to terminal ailments or death. A pacemaker helps assuage the problems of arrhythmias to increase longevity and help those with heart conditions lead a healthier and more active lifestyle. Using electrical pulses, a pacemaker can taper irregular heartbeats to pump blood throughout the body at a normal rate.
Notable inventor, Wilson Greatbach, invented the first implantable pacemaker by accident while he was attempting to construct an oscillator that would be utilized to record different heart sounds. A mistake of pulling one of the resistors from the wrong box led to the advent of the life-saving device that is used prominently today. A rhythmic beating sound was rendered during his flub, and it was then that Greatbach had the idea to scrap his original invention and create an implantable pacemaker. After two years of fine-tuning the device to perfection, the pacemaker went on to be hailed as “one of the ten greatest achievements of the last 50 years by the National Society of Professional Engineers.”
If we didn’t have X-rays, would we suddenly just assume we had (or didn’t have) a broken bone? Would surgeons need to merely guess which part of the body that firecracker had gotten lodged into? And what are you doing during your free time that firecrackers are being lodged into ambiguous parts of your body? I digress…
X-rays are an integral part of the medical field, as they can show medical professionals if/where a broken bone or fracture has occurred, where a bullet is lodged, signs of pneumonia, and they are also used to identify breast cancer with mammograms. The use of X-rays has become so standard in medical practice, it is hard to believe that the invention of the X-ray was a complete accident. In 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was spending time in his lab in Germany to try and figure out if cathode rays were able to pass through glass — you know, typical physics stuff. To block a majority of the radiation, Rontgen had set up thick pieces of cardboard around a fluorescent screen, but was in for a surprise when he noticed a strange glowing on the screen penetrating the cardboard barriers every time he switched on the cathode ray. While others may have decided that level of radiation was terrifying and just scrapped the project, Rontgen investigated the glowing screen and found that the glowing permeated several objects. He even placed his hand in front of the screen only to be welcomed by the sight of the bones in his hands, thus discovering that the ray could penetrate most anything except for things like bone and lead.
It took years to perfect X-rays, as scientists and doctors didn’t initially realize the harmful effects of radiation, which can cause fatal conditions like skin cancer. Today, X-rays are used widely in medicine and also in airports for extra security measures.
Penicillin is a potent antibiotic used to treat ear infections and a litany of other bacterial infections, such as meningitis and pneumonia. Not only is penicillin the most widely used antibiotic of today, it was the first ever discovered, and the discovery was a complete accident. The interesting part of the story of how penicillin was discovered is the fact that the landmark discovery may have never happened if it weren’t for someone being pretty careless at work. You read that right — negligence paid off. Alexander Fleming has been described as a “carless lab technician” during his time as a Scottish researcher in the 1920s, and for good reason. He had been conducting experiments on the influenza virus in a lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London when he basically decided, “You know what? I need a vacation. I’m just gonna peace out here and assume someone else will clean up this astronomical mess I’ve made.” I can’t confirm that the preceding sentiment was something Fleming actually said and thought, but he did take a two-week holiday without cleaning up after himself.
When Fleming returned to his filthy lab, he discovered mold was growing on his petri dishes, because why wouldn’t it be?? While it would have been easy to discount this mold as the natural consequence to jetting off without so much as dusting off a counter, Fleming then realized that the mold growing on a plate of cultured staphylococcus was actually preventing the growth of further bacteria. In an article from the British Journal of Experimental Pathology, Fleming wrote, “The staphylococcus colonies became transparent and were obviously undergoing lysis … the broth in which the mold had been grown at room temperature for one to two weeks had acquired marked inhibitory, bactericidal and bacteriolytic properties to many of the more common pathogenic bacteria.” Further reported statement from Fleming included the lax researcher as saying, “One sometimes finds what one is not looking for. When I woke up just after dawn on Sept. 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionize all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic, or bacteria killer. But I guess that was exactly what I did.”
Post-it notes are a revolutionary way to set quick reminders for ourselves and also to passive aggressively remind our roommates to take out the trash for once, BECAUSE YOU ARE NOT THE ONLY ONE PAYING RENT AND FOR GOD’S SAKE WASH A FREAKING DISH ONCE IN A WHILE!
Anyway, the invention of post-it notes was actually spurred by not one, but two accidents courtesy of inventors Spencer Silver and Art Fry. Silver’s invention was actually the complete opposite of what he was assigned to create in the 1960s during his work for 3M. The company wanted Silver to create a powerful adhesive to aid in the construction of planes. Instead, Silver’s invention resulted in a weak adhesive known as Acrylate Copolymer Microspheres. Although the adhesive couldn’t be used for aerospace, Silver tried to tote the unique qualities his invention possessed, which included an ability to “be peeled away easily without leaving any residue” and that its resistance to melting or breaking meant it could be used time and time again. Although the features were interesting, there was no real market for it. Silver suggested using the adhesive on bulletin boards so that people could stick important papers and reminders to the board without use of tacks or risk of damaging the papers, as they could easily be peeled off. 3M was still like, “No thanks,” and it seemed that Silver would have to give up on his invention.
Cue Fry, a chemical engineer who moonlighted as a church singer. Fry had become exasperated with the pages from his hymnal continually falling out when he was trying to belt out tunes for his choir. From there, a lightning bulb went off and Silver and Fry merged ideas to use the adhesive on paper instead of a bulletin board, and the post-it was born. It wasn’t until the 1980s that post-its became popular across the nation, and today they are regular fixtures in offices everywhere.
Microwaves have helped us avoid cooking for years, with their lightning-fast ability to heat up frozen dinners, pop popcorn, and the like. For those who do cook (congratulations), the microwave can literally zap the time it would take to reheat leftovers, and a Pop-Tart can be ready-to-eat by placing it on high in a microwave for three seconds — THREE SECONDS!! There is no one with a schedule so tight that they can’t afford three seconds of time for a sugary breakfast treat to cook. All hail microwaves!
Lazy chefs everywhere can thank Raytheon Corporation engineer, Percy Spencer, for the microwave, but the invention came about completely by accident. Spencer was working to produce combat radar equipment during World War II, and while standing in front of one of the radar sets, he noticed that the candy bar in his pocket melted. Instead of becoming infuriated by the dissipation of his treat, he became intrigued and decided to do an experiment involving popcorn kernels. It probably goes without saying that this experiment led to the first batch of microwave popcorn, and after a few other food-based experiments, Spencer went on to develop the first microwave oven. It wasn’t until the 1960s that microwaves became an affordable household product, and today they are a fixture in almost every home across the nation.
Getting our tonsils taken out, having a tooth removed, and a myriad of other medical procedures would be excruciating if it weren’t for the help of anesthesia. Surgeries are never something people look forward to, but can you imagine the crippling fear that would be experienced if every procedure was done without an anesthetic? Yikes. Although it seems like coming up with the concept of numbing pain before surgical procedures wouldn’t be that difficult of a feat, the men of medicine who were responsible for helming anesthesia originally used nitrous oxide as a party drug.
In the 1800s, Crawford Young, William Morton, Charles Jackson, and Horace Wells would participate in “laughing parties” or “ether frolics” where partygoers would become intoxicated by ethers and nitrous oxide. It was 1844 when the idea of parlaying these recreational uses into medicine came about when Wells noticed a man under the influence oblivious to a severe leg injury he had incurred. Whether or not the man got that leg taken care of is unknown, but the fact that he didn’t feel any pain (for as long as the nitrous oxide was taking effect) was part of what spurred anesthesia. Wells later used a compound from “laughing gas” to remove his tooth, and from there a collaboration between Wells, Young, Morton, and Jackson took place to begin using the compounds for “minor dental surgeries.” It is up for debate as to who can truly garner the title of prime discoverer for anesthesia, but we’re just thanking our lucky stars (and limbs) that it exists.
In 1853, hotel chef, George Crum, was having a bad day at work. As cooking is often referred to as an art, insults to the chef aren’t often met with kindness. Crum wasn’t used to criticism, as he was considered to be one of the cooking world’s most elite, whipping together a plethora of culinary creations that would be “fit for a king.” One patron, however, didn’t feel that their meal sufficed as a royal treatment, particularly when it came to the fries. The choleric customer posited that the fries were too thick, absent of flavor, and soggy. He swiftly demanded a new dish that was made to his liking. Rather than stay true to the old adage, “The customer is always right,” Crum decided that the patron’s ire deserved to be reciprocated with his own, and he went to work to make a dish that he was sure would annihilate any remnants of pleasure that may have remained on the patron’s tastebuds. Since the guest felt the fries were too thick and bland, Crum decided to make the thinnest cut of fries imaginable by cutting potatoes into paper-thin slices before dousing what he had intended to be an abominable creation with salt. The result was not what Crum expected.
The bad mood of the patron was completely dismantled once he bit into what was the first ever potato chip, and he immediately asked for seconds. What Crum meant as revenge became famous throughout New England as “Saratoga Chips,” and even led to Crum establishing his own restaurant. Today, “Saratoga Chips” are known simply as potato chips, and they have become one of the biggest snack staples of the nation.
Chocolate Chip Cookies
Since we’ve appealed to the savory-toothed proponents with the invention of potato chips, let’s move on to something for those with an admitted sweet tooth by delving into the history of the chocolate chip cookie. Like Crum, the inventor of the chocolate chip cookie came upon the discovery by creating something they assumed would not appease their guest — unlike Crum, the kitchen faux pas wasn’t intentional. Today, we often think of the name “Nestle Toll House” when thinking of chocolate chip cookies — along with the cylindrical decadence known as chocolate chip cookie dough — and in the 1930s, Ruth Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, owned the acclaimed Toll House Inn in Whitman, Massachusetts. Wakefield was preparing to make a large batch of her famous chocolate Butter Drop Do cookies when she found herself in a quandary — she was fresh out of baker’s chocolate. Fortunately, she had a bar of Nestle’s semisweet chocolate and decided to improvise by mashing the chocolate bar in with the dough. She assumed that the chocolate would melt upon heating and that the guests would be none the wise. Upon pulling her altered staple from the over, she found that the chocolate remained unmelted, a confection of chocolatey shards peppering the tan cookies. As was the case with the begrudged guest at the hotel where Crum was chef, the guests at the Toll House Inn became instantly enamored with what is now known as chocolate chip cookies.
People loved the cookies so much, they rushed to stock up on Nestle semisweet chocolate so that they could replicate the recipe at home. Noticing the increase in sales, Andrew Nestle sough out Wakefield, and they made a deal: “Andrew Nestle agreed to give Wakefield a lifetime supply of the chocolate in return for her recipe printed on every Nestle semisweet chocolate bar.”
Nearly every household and apartment throughout the nation has at least one box of matches stored in a drawer for emergencies, such as when the power goes out. With one swift strike, matches can bring light when we are enveloped in darkness. In 1826, a British pharmacist by the name of John Walker was mixing together chemicals when he noticed a solidified lump had accumulated at the bottom of his stick. He attempted to scrape the nondescript lump off the stick when it suddenly burst into flame. Ambitious Walker immediately sought marketing the accidental invention as “Friction Lights.” The original matches were made from cardboard, but Walker altered his invention to be three-inch sticks sold in boxes with a strip of sandpaper for striking.
Unfortunately for Walker, he never learned the importance of copyright, failing to patent his invention. This led to a slew of copycats who attempted to steal the idea, including Samuel Jones, who basically replicated “Friction Lights” and called his product “Lucifers.” The earliest matches were popular, but posed some dangers, and it wasn’t until a non-poisonous red phosphorous — discovered by Johan Edvard Lundstron — was added that matches became the product we see today.
Glue is great and all, but we know that Super Glue is the product we all turn to when we really want to make something stick. Super Glue is more formally known as cyanoacrylate, and it is a potent adhesive that works swiftly and allows long-lasting adhesion. In his New York Time’s bestseller, Dirty Daddy, comedian and former Full House patriarch, Bob Saget, spoke of a fellow comedian friend who had been going through hard financial times using Super Glue to fix a broken tooth. When he chipped the tooth, he used Super Glue to glue the broken fragment back on, as going to the dentist was not an option at the time. I’m not saying you should choose superglue over medical assistance, but the story is being recalled here to illustrate just how powerful this sticky substance really is.
Super Glue may have never come to fruition, however, had it not been for Dr. Harry Coover. In 1942, Coover was parrying with different ways to make clear plastic gun sights to aid Allied soldiers during World War II. One product was extremely potent as an adhesive, but it couldn’t be used for gun sights. Coover also found the creation to be “too sticky” and discarded it as a fluke. It wasn’t until 1951 when Coover was working at Eastman Kodak that he revisited his past invention. While he was supervising a project on jet canopies, one of his workers — Fred Joyner — used the archaic Super Glue between a pair of refractor prisms, where it was found that the product could bond items at an extremely fast rate and was also resistant to heat. In 1958, Super Glue was sold with the original name “Eastman #910,” but — noting the lackluster effect such a name would have on marketing — the product was eventually renamed.