Accidental discoveries

May 17, 2015


WHETHER scientific or general, discoveries usually come about after painstaking, goal-oriented lab work while some discoveries come about unintentionally when a person tries for something and ends up with a different, but incredibly useful, result!

Experts estimate that between 30 and 50 per cent of all scientific discoveries are in some way accidental. From glue and potato chips to matches and microwaves, so many things were discovered accidently but they went on to change our lives for the better in ways it couldn’t be imagined. So whether banes or boons, the following accidental inventions from the past two centuries have changed the world in one way or another. And they are not limited to one field and we have selected a few very famous ones to share with you this week.


HAVE you ever imagined life before matches? Perhaps rubbing stones to light the stoves so that your mum can cook? Thanks to English chemist, John Walker, we don’t have to rub stones and sticks. One day, in 1826, Walker noticed a dried lump on the end of a stick while he was stirring a mix of chemicals. When he tried to scrape it off, voila, it sparked and flamed. Jumping on the discovery, Walker marketed the first friction matches as “Friction Lights” and sold them at his pharmacy. The initial matches were made of cardboard but he soon replaced those with three-inch long hand-cut wooden splints; the matches came in a box equipped with a piece of sandpaper for striking.


THE next time you make omelette in your non-stick frying pan, thank Dr Plunkett for a frustration-free cooking. In 1938, when Dr Plunkett was experimenting with a potential alternative refrigerant, tetrafluorethylene (TFE); he subsequently created around 100 pounds of TFE and stored the gas in small cylinders and put them in the freezer. Upon opening the valve on one of the pressurised cylinders of TFE, nothing came out, even though by its weight, it seemed to be still full. Dr Plunkett investigated further by cutting the cylinder open, and discovered that the TFE gas inside had polymerised into a waxy white powder, polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE) resin.

Plunkett ran tests on this new substance to see if it had any unique or useful properties. Four of the most important properties of this substance discovered were that it was extremely slippery, non-corrosive, chemically stable, and that it had an extremely high melting point. Three years later, the process and name of Teflon were patented and trademarked. Four years after that, Teflon first began being sold, initially only used for various industrial and military applications due to the high expense of producing TFE.


CORN flakes were created (by accident, of course) during a search for good, wholesome vegetarian food by two brothers William Kellogg and John Kellogg. In 1894, John was the chief medical officer of Battle Creek Sanitarium in Michigan, which was run based on Seventh-day Adventist health principles of a vegetarian diet. The two brothers were in search of an easily digestible bread substitute, which led them to boiling wheat to make dough. But it never turned into dough. They let the wheat boil for far too long. When Will rolled out the wheat, it separated into large, flat flakes. After baking and tasting, the brothers decided it was a delicious, healthy snack worthy of their patients. They named it, ‘Granose’ flakes. The product was highly appreciated.

Later, Will tried the process with corn and people loved it. In 1906, alone, the Kelloggs’ company, Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company, shipped 175,000 cases of corn flakes, according to the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.


WHILE studying staphylococcus, Alexander Fleming added some of the bacteria to petri dishes before leaving for a vacation. Although he had expected the bacteria to grow, upon returning he was surprised to find a mould growing in the dishes instead. After a close inspection he found that the mould released a by-product which inhibited the growth of the staph, thus giving birth to the first antibiotic in the world.


IN 1943, Navy engineer Richard James was trying to figure out how to use springs to devise springs that could keep sensitive ship equipment steady at sea, when he knocked one of his prototypes over. Instead of crashing to the floor, it gracefully sprang downward, and then righted itself. The spring became a goofy toy of many childhoods — that is before every kid inevitably gets theirs all twisted up and ruined.


YOU must have noticed Velcro strap on your shoes, covers of the bags, etc., wonder how it was discovered? It was 1941, when Georges de Mestral, a Swiss engineer, went for a walk in the woods with his dog and wondered if the burrs that clung to his trousers — and his dog — could be turned into something useful.

After nearly eight years of research (apparently it’s not so easy to make a synthetic burr), de Mestral successfully reproduced the natural attachment with two strips of fabric, one with thousands of tiny hooks and another with thousands of tiny loops. He named his invention Velcro, a combination of the words ‘velvet’ and ‘crochet,’ and formally patented it in 1955.


IT is interesting to note that popsicles were discovered by an 11-year-old boy. In 1905, when soda pop had just become the most popular drink in the market, Frank Epperson, 11, decided to save some money by making his own at home. Using a combination of flavoured-powder and water he got pretty close but then absentmindedly left the concoction out on the porch all night. Temperatures ended up dropping severely and when he came out in the morning he found his mixture frozen with the stirring stick still in it.


IN 1895, German physicist Wilhelm 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 then used a photographic plate instead of a screen, and an image was captured. In this way, an extraordinary discovery had been made: that the internal structures of the body could be made visible without the necessity of surgery.

Post-it notes

IN 1968, Spencer Silver, a chemist working for 3M stumbled across a “low-tack” adhesive that he found was just strong enough to hold paper to a surface but weak enough that it wouldn’t tear upon removal. After many failed attempts at finding a marketable application, one of Silver’s colleagues, Art Fry, realised that it would be perfect as a no-slip bookmark and thus the post-it note was born.


SACCHARIN was discovered in 1878-9 in a small lab at Johns Hopkins University, Baltimore, US. The lab belonged to Ira Remsen, a chemistry professor. Remsen was hired by the H.W. Perot Import Firm, primarily so that the firm could loan the use of his lab to a young Russian chemist and sugar-nerd, Constantin Fahlberg. One day after work, Fahlberg sat down to dinner when he noticed that the bread roll he’d just taken a bite out of tasted very sweet.

After much thought he came to the conclusion that he must have accidentally spilled a chemical onto his hands. Fahlberg was excited, but didn’t know which of the many chemicals he’d been working with that day had caused the sweet taste. Thus, he went back to his lab and eventually discovered the source of the sweet chemical, a beaker filled with sulfobenzoic acid, phosphorus chloride and ammonia. This deadly sounding cocktail had boiled over earlier in the day, creating benzoic sulfinide, a compound Fahlberg was familiar with.

Thus, came the saccharine, a new artificial sweetener, advertised as a “non-fattening” alternative to sugar.

Super glue

IN 1942, Dr Harry Coover of Eastman-Kodak Laboratories created cyanoacrylate while developing plastic lenses for gun sights. To his dismay, it was formed as a rather sticky substance and stuck to everything it touched. He thought it a failure and so it was forgotten.

Six years later, while overseeing an experimental new design for airplane canopies, Coover was again confronted with cyanacrylate. But this time, he started to observe the potential of the stuff which formed an incredibly strong bond without needing heat. He then tinkered with sticking various objects in his lab and realised that he had finally stumbled upon a synthetic adhesive. Coover filed a patent, and in 1958, cyanoacrylate was being sold on shelves.

The microwave

PERCY Spencer, a famous electronics genius and engineer at Raytheon, was fiddling with a microwave-emitting magnetron — used in the guts of radar arrays — when he felt a strange sensation in the pocket of his pants. Spencer paused and found that a chocolate bar in his pocket had started to melt. Figuring that the microwave radiation of the magnetron was to blame (or to credit, as it would turn out), Spencer realised the potential of the device in the culinary work. So the microwave made its debut in 1945!

Potato chips

IN 1853, George Crum, a chef in New York, accidentally invented potato chips when an annoying customer kept sending his fried potatoes back, complaining that they were too thick. Frustrated, he sliced the potatoes razor thin, fried them until crisp and seasoned them with extra salt. To Crum’s surprise, the customer loved them and wanted more, thus potato chips were born.

Chocolate chip cookies

LOVE chocolate chip cookies? If Ruth Wakefield wouldn’t have been short of baker’s chocolate we wouldn’t have our beloved chocolate chip cookie today. Ruth Wakefield and her husband owned and operated the Toll House Inn in Massachusetts, where Ruth cooked for the guests.

One night in 1937, Ruth decided to whip up a batch of Chocolate Butter Drop Do cookies, a popular old colonial recipe, to serve to her guests. But as she started to bake, she discovered she was out of baker’s chocolate. Ruth then chopped up a block of Nestlé semi-sweet chocolate that she had. Ruth had expected the chocolate to melt and disperse through the cookie dough as regular baking chocolate would. Instead, the chocolate pieces retained their individual form, softening to a moist, gooey melt, and the world had its first known chocolate chip cookie.

Ice-cream cones

THE first ice cream cone was produced in 1896 by Italo Marchiony and he was granted a patent in December 1903. But a similar creation was independently introduced at the 1904 St Louis World’s Fair by Ernest A. Hamwi, a Syrian concessionaire.

Hamwi was selling a crisp, waffle-like pastry — zalabis — in a booth right next to an ice-cream vendor. Because of ice cream’s popularity, the vendor ran out of dishes. Hamwi saw an easy solution to this problem: he quickly rolled one of his wafer-like waffles in the shape of a cone, or cornucopia, and gave it to the ice-cream vendor. The vendor put some ice-cream in it, and sold, the customers were more than happy to see the ice-cream in a waffle cone and voila… the ice-cream cone was born.