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10 Things That Were Discovered Accidentally

Things Discovered accidentally

“An accident is an unfortunate incident that happens unexpectedly and unintentionally, typically resulting in damage or injury.” This is one of the ways in which The Oxford Dictionary defines “accident.” But not all accidents have adverse results. Some are so rewarding that we must be immensely grateful to the people who caused them. We bring to you a list of 10 things that were discovered accidentally and have changed the world forever.

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1. In 1945, Percy Spencer, an American Engineer, accidentally discovered “microwaves” when an active radar set which he was working on emitted microwaves and melted a candy bar that he had in his pocket.

Percy Spencer, Microwave
Image credits: Spencer Family Archives via, Mk2010/wikimedia

A kitchen without microwave looks incomplete in today’s world. But did you know that microwaves were discovered by chance? Percy Spencer, an American Engineer working for Raytheon, is the man behind discovering and investigating “microwaves.” He was a radar technology expert and played a key role in developing combat radar equipment for the U.S. Defense Department during World War II. Once, while making a magnetron – a high-powered vacuum tube – Spencer happened to stand in front of an active radar set. He had a candy bar in his pocket which melted while he was standing there. On experimenting further with popcorn kernels and eggs, he successfully designed the first microwave oven.(1,2,3)

2. In 1895, a German physicist Wilhelm Rontgen, noticed “x-rays” while experimenting with cathode ray tubes. He was trying to find out if cathode rays could escape from a glass tube covered with thick, black cardboard when rays of light passed through the thick paper and appeared on a screen kept at a distance.  

Wilhelm Rontgen, X-Ray
Image source: wikimedia, Wellcome Images/wikimedia

X-rays, an indispensable tool in the medical world, were discovered by Wilhelm Rontgen while studying cathode rays being emitted from Lenard and Crookes tubes (electrical discharge tubes). While experimenting in a dark room, Rontgen removed all the air from the tube, filled it with a special gas and passed high electric voltage through it which produced fluorescent light. He then covered the tube with thick black cardboard and placed a screen covered with barium platinocyanide at a distance. On doing this, he noticed some rays that could pass through the thick cardboard and illuminate the screen. Rontgen named these rays as “x,” owing to their unknown nature. X-rays proved to be immensely useful in the medical world when Wilhelm managed to capture the image of his wife’s hand on a photographic plate using x-rays. Though many scientists had encountered these rays prior to Rontgen, he was the first one to study them systematically and received the Nobel Prize in Physics for it.(1,2)

3. In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin while researching the summer flu in the basement of his laboratory. A Petri dish containing Staphylococcus (bacteria) was mistakenly left open, and as a result got contaminated by a blue-green mold which turned out to be lethal for the bacteria’s growth.

Dr. Alexander Fleming, Penicillin
Image credits: Ministry of Information Photo Division Photographer/wikimedia, Solis Invicti/flickr

In 1928, Dr. Alexander Fleming discovered the world’s first antibiotic substance, penicillin G. Fleming was a brilliant scientist but had a very untidy laboratory. This untidiness actually helped in the discovery of penicillin while he was studying the properties of staphylococci in his lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. On the 3rd of September 1928, when Fleming returned to his lab after vacationing with his family, he noticed that he had left some Petri dishes containing the cultures of staphylococci open, and one of them had developed a blue-green mold which had destroyed the surrounding bacteria. On studying it thoroughly, Fleming discovered that the mold came from Penicillium genus and it released penicillin, a substance that could destroy many harmful bacteria.(1,2)

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4. Viagra was discovered by chance when the renowned American drug company, Pfizer, was on a mission to develop a cardiovascular drug for lowering blood pressure. Though the newly developed drug failed in this mission, there was a side-effect that it caused. It caused increased and longer erections in men.

Pfizer regional headquarters, Viagra
Image credits: Lauri Silvennoinen/wikimedia, user:SElefant/wikimedia

Viagra is one of the best illustrations of drug-repositioning. Pfizer was in the process of developing a drug for heart disorders of hypertension and angina pectoris. The clinical trials of the newly synthesized Sildenafil drug were not successful and the company was on the verge of terminating the trials when some of the participants of the trials reported a side effect of the drug – an increase in penile erections. Subsequently, after detailed study, Pfizer decided to market it as a drug for erectile dysfunction. Viagra, as Pfizer named it, thus became the first approved oral treatment for erectile dysfunction in the United States of America.(1,2)

5. In 1936, Gerhard Schrader and his team discovered “nerve agents” in Germany while developing new types of insecticides. While experimenting with a lot of compounds, Schrader happened to develop a nerve agent “tabun.” When a drop of tabun fell on the lab bench, Schrader and his team mates began experiencing dizziness, constriction of pupils, and breathlessness.

Gerhard Schrader, Toxic poison
Image credits: Bayer AG Corporate History & Archives via, Pixabay

The deadly nature of nerve agents would make one think that a lot of research has gone behind making them. But in fact, a German chemist, Gerhard Schrader, and his team stumbled upon nerve agents while working on a mission to end world hunger. Working for IG Farben, Schrader had been working in a laboratory in Leverkusen to create new types of insecticides. While trying this, he worked with many compounds and made “tabun” which proved to be ultra-effective against insects. However, a small drop of tabun was spilled on his lab bench and demonstrated its ill-effects on humans too. Schrader and his teammates began feeling dizzy, breathless, and their pupils constricted. During World War II, the Nazi government summoned Schrader to carry out more research on nerve agents stealthily.(source)

6. A German alchemist, Hennig Brand, discovered “phosphorus” in 1669 while experimenting with urine. Though Brand could not accomplish his original objective of turning urine into gold, he ended up discovering a white, waxy substance that glowed in the dark, namely, phosphorus.

Hennig Brand, Phosphorus
Image credits: Wellcome Images/wikimedia, Leiem/wikimedia

Alchemists experimented with various elements in the hope of turning them into gold. In 1669, a German alchemist, Hennig Brand, ended up discovering phosphorus in one such quest for gold. Brand stored around 1,100 liters of urine for many days until it gave out a repulsive smell. He then boiled it, turned it into a paste, heated the paste at a high temperature, all in the hope of making gold out of it. Instead, this process gave him a white, wax-like substance that glowed in dark – phosphorus.(1,2)

7. A Swiss chemist, Albert Hofmann, first synthesized the psychedelic drug, Lysergic acid diethylamide (LSD), in 1938 while trying to obtain a respiratory and circulatory stimulant. The synthesized LSD was set aside for almost five years until he decided to re-synthesize it. During that time, he unknowingly ingested a little quantity of LSD through his fingertips and discovered the powerful effects of the drug.

Albert Hofmann, LSD
Image credits: Philip H. Bailey/wikimedia, Psychonaught/wikimedia

 

The hallucinogenic drug LSD is yet another discovery that happened by chance. Albert Hofmann, a Swiss chemist working for Sandoz Laboratories, was studying medicinal plant squill and fungus ergot in search of a respiratory and circulatory stimulant. During this study, he first synthesized LSD on November 16, 1938. The drug, however, did not result in the kind of stimulant which he was expecting, and he set it aside for almost five years. On April 16, 1943, Hofmann decided to re-visit the experiment and the LSD. While re-synthesizing it, he unknowingly touched his mouth, eyes, and nose and ingested a little bit of LSD. Hofmann then experienced a very magical and dreamlike state for around two hours. A few repeated doses of LSD by Hofmann and other employees of Sandoz  confirmed the power of this drug.(1,2)

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8. “Fireworks” was discovered sometime between 600 and 900 A.D. in China. Some Chinese alchemists mixed together some basic kitchen ingredients and stuffed the mixture in bamboo shoots. When thrown into a fire, these bamboo shoots exploded resulting in the discovery of fireworks.

Fireworks China
Image credit: maxpixel.freegreatpicture.com

Fireworks have become an inseparable part of celebrations and festivals. The Chinese were already aware of a natural firecracker, bamboo, which on being roasted would blast because of being hollow. Later on, between 600 and 900 A.D., Chinese alchemists mixed together some basic kitchen ingredients like saltpeter (potassium nitrate), charcoal, sulfur, and some others, stuffed them into bamboo and threw them into a fire. They exploded, and that’s how fireworks were discovered.(source)

9. Constantin Fahlberg discovered the most popular artificial sweetener, “saccharin,” while working at the Johns Hopkins University. One evening, while rushing for dinner after a long day at the lab, Constantin forgot to wash his hands that had traces of benzoic sulfimide. This compound made his dinner taste sweet, and that’s how he discovered the artificial sweetener Saccharin.

Constantin Fahlberg, Saccharin
Image credits: Klewic/wikimedia, User:FA2010/wikimedia

In 1879, Constantin Fahlberg, while working in a laboratory at Johns Hopkins University, first discovered saccharin unintentionally.  He was working on compound radicals and substitutes of coal tar. One evening, as he was buried in his work, he forgot about eating dinner. Later, he rushed for dinner without washing his hands. When he ate the bread, it tasted remarkably sweet to him. He experienced this peculiar sweet taste again when he wiped his face with his lab napkin. His thumb had become the sweetest thing that he had ever tasted. He rushed back to his lab and tasted all the apparatus, and one of them had a compound, benzoic sulfimide, which he later named “saccharin.”. He then did a comprehensive study of saccharin and its composition.(1,2)

10. John Harvey Kellogg and Will Keith Kellogg, who were strict followers of a vegetarian diet, often experimented with oats, wheat, corn, barley, etc., discovered “corn flakes.” Once, the two brothers unintentionally left some cooked wheat unattended and it went stale. Instead of throwing it away, they tried to process it and ended up with delicious corn flakes.

John Harvey Kellogg, Will Keith Kellogg, Kellogg's corn flakes
Image credits: Bain News Service/wikimedia, FotoGuy 49057/flickr, Kellogg’s company/wikimedia

One of the favorite and healthiest breakfast items, corn flakes, were discovered in the 19th century. The two Kellogg brothers were members of the Seventh Day Adventists who followed a strict vegetarian diet. They kept experimenting with a lot of items to produce new food. Once, Will Kellogg kept some cooked wheat aside to attend to urgent matters at the sanitarium. On returning, they found out that the wheat had gone stale. But, due to a pressing budget, they decided against throwing it and tried to process it into a dough by putting it under rollers. Though they did not get the dough, they got tasty flakes, which they toasted and served to the patients.(source)

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