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13 Accidental Discoveries That Changed The World

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We all know that hard work pays off. But sometimes we need more than just that. We’ve all heard or read about discoveries that required years of research and hard work. 

But there are some discoveries that were made out of sheer luck. Here we have a list of discoveries where luck or accident (the combination of the two is known is serendipity) played a big role.

1. Teflon

The fluoropolymer of tetrafluoroethylene which we know best from our nonstick cookware also has wide uses in automobiles and aerospace. 

Roy Plunkett in 1938, while working on refrigerators found this slippery thing that was resistant to heat. It soon found its use in automobiles, wirings in computer appliances and aerospace.

2. Saccharin 

This artificial sweetener widely used as an alternative to sugar was accidentally discovered by Constantine Fahlberg back in 1879 while working with coal tar. One day after returning home from his lab, he found his food sweeter than usual. 

Contemplating over this incident, he found that his hand contained chemicals from his lab which he would eventually discover to be saccharin in the days to come. 

So, all those who love sweet foods and the diabetic patients who have been able to eat sugar-free sweet should be grateful to Fahlberg’s fortunate discovery. 

3. Vulcanized rubber 

Vulcanized rubber has wide applications in automobile tires, hockey pucks, bowling balls, clarinet, saxophone and shoe soles. Vulcanization is the process of combination of sulfur and rubber at high temperature and high pressure which increases the rubber's strength, durability and renders it less sticky.

Scientists had been trying to make rubber exactly so but this feat was achieved by Charles Goodyear in 1839 thanks to an accident in which a mixture of sulfur and rubber gum splattered onto a hot stove and formed a hardened material. 

So the next time you are playing hockey or bowling, don’t forget to thank Charles Goodyear’s accident.

4. Coca-cola

This popular soft drink was discovered by John Pemberton, a pharmacist. He had originally actually intended Coca-Cola to be a remedy for headaches and nervous disorders and not as a beverage. 

He used 2 ingredients – coca leaves and cola nuts for that purpose. But when carbonated water was mixed to it just became a brain tonic. Later with a secret recipe and sugar, Coca-Cola would end up becoming the most popular beverage on earth.

5. Super glue

This high strength adhesive was also a perchance discovery. During the Second World War, Harry Coover was supposedly trying to make plastic for guns when he noticed the sticky substance known as cyanoacrylate. 

But its use only followed after he came across this substance again while trying to develop heat-resistant materials.

6. Velcro

Velcro has numerous uses. We use it in extensively in our daily lives and NASA uses it in zero gravity environments. Its discovery too was a happy accident. On a summer day in 1941, George De Mestral decided to go on a hike with his dog. 

While returning home later he noticed how perfectly the cockleburs were bound to his dog's fur and to his clothes. He examined it microscopically and found that cocklebur had hooks that readily attached to loops in his clothing and in his dog's fur. 

He then wanted to devise a substance with similar properties. With a lot of trial and error, he finally settled on nylon and named it Velcro – combination of 'velour' and 'crochet'. Velcro is now a multi-million dollar industry.

7. Microwave oven

It might surprise you to know that Microwave ovens weren't a deliberate invention but rather a fortunate discovery. Percy Spencer while inspecting a device called magnetron found that candy bar in his pocket had melted. 

It caught his attention and he brought some popcorn kernels and held them in front of the device and what happened next was, you guessed it.

8. Quinine 

The drug used to treat Malaria is said to have been accidentally discovered. While in a forest in the Andes, a man who happened to be a malaria victim drank from a nearby pool of water in order to quench his thirst. The water tasted bitter. 

He noticed that there were Cinchona trees all around him. Later when his fever subsided, he passed his newly acquired knowledge to other people he knew. And thus, Cinchona once thought to be a poisonous plant started being used for its medicinal value. Quinine, a chemical present in the Cinchona bark kills the malarial parasites.  

9. LSD and its psychedelic nature

LSD heralded by Steve Jobs as one of the best things he had done in his life was discovered to possess psychedelic effects back in 1938. Albert Hofmann was working on compounds obtained from the fungus Ergot to know their properties and to study their medical potential. 

One evening having finished his work for the day, he was biking his way back home. Suddenly he began experiencing some unusual sensation with fantastic pictures and intense kaleidoscopic play of colors as per his own words. He later recalled that a small amount of LSD had been exposed to his skin earlier.

10. Viagra

Viagra manufactured by pharmaceutical company Pfizer was actually intended to treat angina pectoris, the medical term for chest pain. The drug known during its clinical trial as UK-92480 was found to be ineffective for treating angina pectoris. 

But the study of side effects showed that it led to penile erection. Pfizer Company launched new trial for erectile dysfunction and the rest is history. Pfizer Company has made a fortune from this popular drug.

11. Pacemaker 

The most acknowledged invention of Wilson Greatbatch – the artificial pacemaker was discovered accidentally. This fact may be unknown even to medical students and practitioners. In the 1950s, Greatbatch had left the Navy and started working as a medical researcher. 

While building an oscillator to record the heart beats of animals, he accidentally installed a wrong resistor in his device. When he operated the device, it gave a rhythmic electrical pulse. He then realized the potential of his new device, worked to refine it and was later awarded a patent for the world's first implantable pacemaker.

12. X-rays 

X-rays, which has been a boon for medicine, was also discovered by chance. Physicist Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen while studying cathode rays discovered new rays of light which could penetrate solids and which had properties completely different from the other rays of light previously known. 

He called these unique rays X-rays and as a result won the 1st Nobel Prize in physics for the accidental discovery.

13. Penicillin

If you are to discuss accidental discoveries, it would be a crime not to mention Penicillin, a discovery that has saved lives of millions and ignited research programs leading to the discovery of other antibiotics. 

In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming was studying the Staphylococcus species in his laboratory. One day he found some molds growing in one of his Petri dishes and curiously it seemed to be dissolving all the bacteria around it. 

Excited by this finding, he devoted time to isolate and identify this mold which was later identified to be Penicillium.  His work won him a Nobel Prize.


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