Amazing accidental inventions

24 Oct 2020


Mistakes happen, and sometimes these mistakes can be life-changing and revolutionary. Many things in the world happen by chance, mistakes and errors, and many-a-time these very mistakes lead to some of the greatest inventions and discoveries of all time.

Here are some of the accidental inventions that proved to be very useful and popular though, at the time they first came about, little did people or their inventor know how useful these inventions will be. Here we look at some of these amazing accidental inventions.

Penicillin: Sir Alexander Fleming
Penicillin: Sir Alexander Fleming


Inventor — Sir Alexander Fleming, scientist

Had Fleming been a little less sloppy, he won’t have discovered penicillin, the world’s first broad-spectrum antibiotic.

In 1928, Fleming was working in his laboratory at St. Mary’s Hospital in London, England. He left one of the samples containing a culture of Staphylococcus aureus beside an open window. When he returned after a month from a holiday, Fleming noticed that one of the samples had become contaminated with a mould (later identified as Penicillium notatum) which had blown in from the window. Fleming examined the spoiled sample under a microscope and saw there was a clear zone around the mould where the bacteria were being dissolved or destroyed. Fleming concluded that the mould released a substance that repressed the growth and caused lysing (breaking down of the membrane of a cell) of the bacteria.

Andrew J. Moyer discovered in 1941 how to make penicillin in large quantities to save millions of lives. Alexander Fleming, Howard Florey and Ernst Chain were awarded the Nobel Prize in 1945 for the discovery of penicillin, the world’s first broad-spectrum antibiotic.

So many lives have been saved due to a simple act of scientific sloppiness!

The cardiac pacemaker: John Hopps
The cardiac pacemaker: John Hopps

The cardiac pacemaker

Inventor — John Hopps, electrical engineer

The first cardiac pacemaker was invented by a Canadian electrical engineer, John Hopps. He stumbled on it by mistake while researching the effects of radio frequency heating on battling hypothermia in 1941. He found that if the heart stopped beating when its temperature dropped, it could be restarted artificially using mechanical or electrical stimulation.

In 1950, Hopps invented the first pacemaker device, which was too large to be used internally. It took several years, and a number of teams from around the world, to eventually get the device down to a size which can be fitted inside the body.

The invention of implantable pacemakers is very interesting and also happened by accident.

The first practical implantable pacemaker: Wilson Greatbatch
The first practical implantable pacemaker: Wilson Greatbatch

The first practical implantable pacemaker

Inventor — Wilson Greatbatch, electrical engineer

If there was one dumb move that has saved countless lives, it was the one made by Wilson Greatbatch — he pulled the wrong part out of a box of equipment, plugged it into a circuit and it was the beginning of the first practical implantable pacemaker.

In 1956, Greatbatch was working on building a heart rhythm recording device at the University of Buffalo. He used a resistor of the wrong size and when he installed it, the circuit emitted intermittent electrical pulses. He associated the timing and rhythm of the pulses with a human heartbeat, after which, he soon began experiments to shrink the equipment and shield it from body fluids.

Greatbatch’s implantable device of just two cubic inches, forever changed life expectancy in the world. Earlier, pacemakers were huge machines the size of TVs. He also invented pacemaker batteries.

X-rays machine: Wilhem Roentgen
X-rays machine: Wilhem Roentgen

X-rays machine

Inventor — Wilhem Roentgen, an eccentric physicist

On November 8, 1895, physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen was experimenting in his laboratory in Wurzburg, Germany, with cathode rays, using a fluorescent screen painted with barium platinocyanide and a Crookes tube which he had wrapped in black cardboard so the visible light from the tube would not interfere. Röntgen realised some invisible rays coming from the tube were passing through the cardboard to make the screen glow. He found they could also pass through books and papers on his desk.

Confused, he named the new rays X-rays due to their unknown origin and threw himself into investigating these unknown rays systematically. Röntgen discovered its medical use when he made a picture of his wife’s hand on a photographic plate formed due to X-rays. The photograph of his wife’s hand was the first photograph of a human body part using X-rays.

Microwave ovens: Percy Spencer
Microwave ovens: Percy Spencer

Microwave ovens

Inventor —Percy Spencer, engineer

In 1945, Percy Spencer was conducting a radar-related research project with a new vacuum tube. He then noticed that the candy bar in his pocket began to melt during his experiments. He then put popcorn into the machine, and when it started to pop, he knew he had hit on to something big.

In 1947, Raytheon built the Radarange, the first microwave oven, which weighed 750 pounds, was five and a half feet tall, and cost about $5,000, but it wasn’t until 1967, when a much more popular 100-volt, countertop version was introduced and it became a sought-after household item.

Saccharin: Constantine Fahlberg
Saccharin: Constantine Fahlberg

Saccharin (an artificial sweetener)

Inventor — Constantine Fahlberg, researcher

Since chemist Constantin Fahlberg wasn’t living in the age of Covid-19, he wasn’t so particular about washing his hands and we have to thank his lack of hygiene to the discovery of artificial sweeteners.

In 1879, Fahlberg was working on new uses for coal tar and was so busy that he didn’t have his meal. When he finally got around to his supper, he forgot to wash his hands, that were still covered with some chemical. He noticed the piece of bread tasted unusually sweet. Then he stuck his thumb in his mouth, which tasted sweet too. Leaving his food, Fahlberg went back to his laboratory and tasted every beaker and dish in the lab until he found the one that contained saccharin.

The researcher immediately requested a patent and mass-produced his product.

Post-it notes: Spencer Silver
Post-it notes: Spencer Silver

Post-it notes

Inventor — Spencer Silver, researcher/scientist

In 1968, scientist Spencer Silver was trying to develop a super strong adhesive, but failed because what he created was very a weak adhesive that would peel off when removed from any surface. It was considered as a failed experiment until another scientist, Art Fry, realised that the little pieces of paper made great bookmarks without leaving residue on the page.

Finally, Post-it Notes were made available commercially in 1980, more than a decade after Silver had first stumbled upon the formula.

Dry cleaning: Jean Baptiste Jolly
Dry cleaning: Jean Baptiste Jolly

Dry cleaning

Inventor — Jean Baptiste Jolly, textile maker

Jean Baptiste Jolly’s maid accidentally knocked a kerosene lamp over a tablecloth and got a scolding for the mess. However, Jolly later observed that the kerosene actually made the cloth cleaner, and the idea for the very first dry cleaner was born!

The slinky: Richard Jones
The slinky: Richard Jones

The slinky

Inventor: Richard Jones, a naval engineer

Naval engineer Richard James was trying to make a meter designed to monitor power on naval battleships. While working with tension springs, one of them fell to the ground and kept bouncing from place to place after it hit the ground.

He showed it to his wife, who saw the potential for a new toy and the name slinky, a Swedish term meaning “sleek and sinuous”. For the 1945 Christmas season, they set up a demonstration stall outside a large store in Philadelphia and 400 units were sold within 90 minutes!

Ice cream cone

A popular story about the ice cream cone goes like this — at St Louis World’s Fair in 1904 , there were two vendors next to one another, one was serving a crisp pastry cooked in a hot waffle-patterned press, and the other was serving ice cream. The ice cream vendor soon ran out of cups to serve his ice cream in, so the waffle vendor named Ernest A. Hamwi, rolled up his waffle into a cone-shape and topped it with the ice cream.

There is also another story about an Italian pushcart vendor in New York City named Italo Marchiony, who sold lemon ice in a cone. He received a patent for a mould for making pastry cups to hold ice cream (not the actual cone) in December, 1903 — six months before the World’s fair.

Popsicle: Frank Epperson
Popsicle: Frank Epperson


Inventor — Frank Epperson, a kid

Now the Popsicle is as accidental an invention as there can be. It is said that in 1905, an 11-year-old kid by the name of Frank Epperson mixed some soda water powder and water and left the mixture on the back porch overnight with his stirring stick still in it. After a very cold night, the next day he had a stick of frozen soda water and 18 years later, in 1823, Epperson began a business producing frozen drinks on a stick in different fruit flavours.

He received a patent for the “Epsicle Ice Pop” and the name was later changed to the Popsicle at his kid’s request.

Tea bags

Inventor — Thomas Sullivan, merchant

In 1901, two women first filed a patent in 1901 for a ‘tea-leaf holder’ made out of mesh, but the credit of the invention of the modern tea bag goes to American coffee and tea merchant Thomas Sullivan.

Sullivan sent samples of his products to his customer packed in cans. One fine day in 1904, he decided to save costs by using small, hand-sewn silk bags. Though his intention wasn’t for people to use these as tea bags, customers did so and loved the convenience of it.

Modern tea bags are usually made of heat-sealed paper fibre invented by William Hermanson.

Chocolate-chip cookies

Inventor — Ruth Wakefield, baker

Ruth Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn, is said to have been making chocolate cookies and ran out of regular baker’s chocolate. So she substituted it with broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate. She expected the chocolate to melt, making chocolate cookies, but the little bits stuck and the chocolate-chip cookie was born.

Another story linked to the head chef at the Toll House Inn goes that the vibrations from a large electric mixer dislodged bars of chocolate stored on the shelf above the mixer, causing the chocolate to fall into the sugar cookie dough. He claims to have overcome Wakefield’s impulse to discard the dough as too badly ruined to waste effort baking them, leading to the discovery of this delicious recipe.

You can believe any of the stories, but the invention was surely accidental.

Potato chips

Inventor —George Crum, a chef

Popular legend has it that in around 1853, a chef named George Crum, in Saratoga Springs, New York, got irritated by a customer who kept sending his plate of fried potatoes back to the kitchen, asking that they be sliced thinner and fried longer.

George sliced the potatoes very thin, fried them till they were curly crisps and salted them. Surprisingly, the customer loved this and kept coming for more, and word spread quickly, making it known as Saratoga Chips initially. — Compiled by Talat Naz

Published in Dawn, Young World, October 24th, 2020