These 18 Accidental and Unintended Scientific Discoveries Changed The World

Here is an excerpt from an especially interesting article by Kevin Loria that is featured at the Science Alert website. These are the first five of 18 examples of how being mindful of what others dismiss as “insignificant details” can lead to exceptional achievements.

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Some scientific discoveries come about after painstaking, goal-oriented lab work finally yields the result that a researcher is trying to find.

But many of the most incredible discoveries in world came about when someone found something they weren’t looking for.

In some cases, these are the result of a true accident. Lucky accidents have allowed people to discover unexpected but useful side effects from drugs, which is what happened with Viagra.

Saccharine – the artificial sweetener in “Sweet’N Low” – was found by a Russian chemist who forgot to wash his hands after a day’s work.

Perhaps more often, world-changing discoveries are the result of a creative mind realising that a material or invention could be repurposed into something incredible.

In many of these cases, the researchers behind the discovery wouldn’t call their finding a true “accident,” since it took a prepared mind to follow through and turn that discovery into something useful. But what was found wasn’t what was being looked for in the first place.

Desperation or the need to figure out a new use for a product can always help too, as it did for the inventor of a dough intended to clean soot from people’s homes. A switch away from coal to gas removed the need for such a cleaning clay.

But it turns out that shapeable clay makes a great and profitable toy: Play-doh.

None of these “accidents” would been the world-changing discoveries they are without the right person there to recognise their value. But they show that the best innovations can come from the unexpected.

1. The microwave

In 1946 Percy Spencer, an engineer for the Raytheon Corporation, was working on a radar-related project. While testing a new vacuum tube, he discovered that a chocolate bar he had in his pocket melted more quickly than he would have expected.

He became intrigued and started experimenting by aiming the tube at other items, such as eggs and popcorn kernels. Spencer concluded that the heat the objects experienced was from the microwave energy.

Soon after, on October 8, 1945, Raytheon filed a patent for the first microwave.

The first microwave weighed 750 pounds (340 kg) and stood 5′ 6″ (168 cm) tall. The first countertop microwave was introduced in 1965 and cost US$500.

2. Quinine

Quinine is an anti-malarial compound that originally comes from tree bark. Now we usually find it in tonic water, though it’s still used in drugs that treat malaria as well.

Jesuit missionaries in South America used quinine to treat malaria as early as 1600, but legend has it that they heard that it could be used to treat the illness from the native Andean population – and that the original discoverer found these properties with a stroke of luck.

The original tale involved a feverish Andean man lost in the jungle and suffering from malaria. Parched, he drank from a pool of water at the base of a quina-quina tree.

The water’s bitter taste made him fear that he’d drank something that would make him sicker, but the opposite happened. His fever abated, and he was able to find his way home and share the story of the curative tree.

This story isn’t as well documented as some others, and other accounts for the discovery of quinine’s medicinal properties exist, but it’s at least an interesting legend of an accidental world-changing finding.

3. X-rays

In 1895, a German physicist named Wilhelm Roentgen was working with a cathode ray tube.

Despite the fact that the tube was covered, he saw that a nearby fluorescent screen would glow when the tube was on and the room was dark. The rays were somehow illuminating the screen.

Roentgen tried to block the rays, but most things that he placed in front of them didn’t seem to make a difference.

When he placed his hand in front of the tube, he noticed he could see his bones in the image that was projected on the screen.

He replaced the tube with a photographic plate to capture the images, creating the first X-rays.

The technology was soon adopted by medical institutions and research departments – though unfortunately, it’d be some time before the risks of X-ray radiation were understood.

4. Radioactivity

In 1896, intrigued by the discovery of X-rays, Henri Becquerel decided to investigate the connection between them and phosphorescence, a natural property of certain substances that makes them give off light.

Becquerel tried to expose photographic plates using uranium salts that he hoped would absorb “x-ray” energy from the sun. He thought he needed sunlight to complete his experiment, but the sky was overcast.

Yet even though the experiment couldn’t be completed, he developed the plates and found that the images showed up clear anyway – the uranium had emitted radioactive rays. He theorised and later showed that the rays came from the radioactive uranium salts.

5. The fastening system that we know by the brand name “Velcro”

Velcro seed1Velcro seed. Also see photo above. (kalyanvarma/Wikimedia Commons)

In 1941, Swiss engineer George de Mestral went for a hike in the Alps with his dog. Upon returning home, he took a look at the small burdock burrs that stuck to his clothes, and noticed that the little seeds were covered in small hooks, which is how they became attached to fabric and fur.

He hadn’t set out to create a fastening system, but after noting how firmly those little burrs attached to fabric, he decided to create the material that we now know by the brand name Velcro.

It became popular after it was later adopted by NASA, and became commonly used on sneakers, jackets, and so much more.

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

Kevin Loria: “I currently write about health and science at Business Insider.

Before that, I was a multimedia producer at WNET, and before that I was a web producer for Condé Nast Traveler. As a journalist I’ve reported, written, helped with web strategy, and shot photos and video.

I’ve also covered national news for the Christian Science Monitor, written about Occupy Wall Street for City Limits, and investigated state budgets for youth services for Youth Today. I’ve shot photos for City Limits,, and The Argentimes. I’ve also shot and produced a story for the CUNY TV show 219 West.

I’m a graduate of the CUNY Graduate School of Journalism, where I focused on science and health reporting, covering topics that ranged from academic studies on gut bacteria to reporting on a coral reef restoration project (a story that involved shooting video while scuba diving). I also spent several years traveling the world.”


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