As Archimedes settled into his evening bath and noticed that the water level rose, he accidentally realized that water displacement relates to volume. He proclaimed “Eureka!” as leapt out of his bathtub and raced through the streets naked. Since that day and more regularly in modern times, some of the most impactful scientific discoveries have occurred by accident.
Small Pox Vaccine
Small pox was a deadly disease that wiped out indigenous populations in America, and plagued Europe. Many died from the disease and those who did not die were left disfigured. Edward Jenner, a British scientist and surgeon, noticed that milkmaids did not contract small pox. Jenner spoke with an area milkman and learned that cowpox, a harmless condition, was a common condition similar to small pox. After careful experimentation, Jenner found by inoculating patients with cowpox, he prevented them from getting the deadlier small pox. Some 50 years after Jenner’s first inoculation, the technique of vaccinating against smallpox using the human strain of cowpox became standard practice around the world.
TECHNOLOGY AND MACHINES
X-rays are commonly used as diagnostic tools by doctors, but when they were discovered in 1895, that was not the intent. German physicist Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was studying cathode rays and noticed that they emitted a glow in his darkened laboratory several feet away from his cardboard-covered glass tube. On closer inspection, he noticed that rays of light were passing through the thick cardboard paper in the lab. He confirmed that the rays could pass through solids. For his accidental discovery, Roentgen won the first Nobel Prize in Science.
Thanks to a mistake made by American engineer Wilson Greatbatch, pacemakers are used to save lives. While working on a circuit for a heart monitor, Greatbatch pulled out the wrong capacity resistor. The mistakenly repaired circuit pulsed, stopped and pulsed again. This timely was like a perfect heart beat. Pacemakers have helped millions of people and have saved countless lives and helped millions of people.
Recipes can also be the mother of invention. There are many accidental food discoveries that result in aids in health, nutrition and medicine. There are those accidently discoveries like the potato chip and popsicles, but there are others such as Coke. A Georgia pharmacist was working on a headache remedy. He mixed a number of ingredients and sold the remedy by the bottles. Eventually, it become a popular beverage. Pepsi and Dr. Pepper have similar origins.
Discovery is next to cleanliness. The discovery of Saccharin, the artificial sweetener, was linked to dirty hands. In 1878, German chemist Constantin Fahlberg and American chemist Ira Remsen were experimenting on coal tar. After a day at the office, Fahlberg failed to wash his hands and went home for dinner. While eating, he noticed that his food tasted a bit sweet. He realized that the taste from coming from his hands. His discovery lead to the use of dietary sugar substitutes for diabetes and dieters.
HOME AND OFFICE
Charles Goodyear had started out life on a farm and at one point aspired to be a button maker. One day he heard about gum elastic and was intrigued by it. Eventually, he found work with a life preserver company and began his experiments with rubber. Thrown in prison by a debtor, Goodyear attempted his experiments with cheaper Indian rubber. His experiments were a success, but the thirst for making better rubber products continued. Then, one day he spilled a mixture of rubber, lead and suffer onto a hot stove. He noticed that the rubber was not ruined. He had accidently discovered a process to create vulcanized rubber. Vulcanized process provides from everything from hockey pucks to road tires.
Let’s not forget about the microwave oven. Percy Spencer was an American engineer and inventor. He was working on an experiment with vacuum tubes. He noticed that emissions from his experiment caused a nearby candy bar to melt and popcorn to pop. And, the rest is history.
Most of us don’t know a polymer from a pomegranate. But, for Roy J. Plunkett the same is not true. While working on a new refrigerant gas for DuPont, he discovered a slick substance that made a great machinery lubricant. He also noticed that it created a waxy coating on things. Nothing would stick. Years later, Teflon cookware became regular household items.
From Post It Notes, photography processes, Play-Doh, and malaria cures, the world of discovery has been blessed with many accidents. And, the quality of life for many people have improves because of these discoveries. I guess serendipity is certainly the step-mother of invention.
Libraries and bookstores are full of fabulous books about accidental discoveries in science and medicine. There are useful sources on the web as well. Some interesting sites to check include: