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.