“What good is an idea if it remains an idea? Try. Experiment. Fail. Try again. Change the world.” – Simon Sinek
Human skill is a product of patience and time. Some inventors devote their entire lives to finding radical solutions to the world’s problems. Many innovations and discoveries result from perseverance, diligence, and a dash of genius.
The human species has made incredible technological progress. The world’s brightest minds have pushed the boundaries of science to develop new and exciting innovations throughout history. It is said that necessity is the mother of innovation. But that is not always the case.
Many of the things we rely on to cure diseases, cook our meals, and make our days more enjoyable were not designed. However, some of the most ingenious innovations that allow us to live our lives without worry were created by chance rather than trial and error. Instead, they were a happy accident.
And, given how useful some commonplace items are, it’s difficult to believe that they were discovered by chance. The pacemaker, x-rays, and even matches were all accidental discoveries. We should all be thankful that the universe bestowed these world-changing, unintentional innovations upon us.
But, a great invention can sometimes be a complete fluke. Below are some of the most famous unintentional innovations and the unusual stories that led to their discovery. This is not an exhaustive list. Neither it is presented in any particular order.
Top 7 accidental innovations that changed the world
Innovator- John Walker (1826)
The innovation of matchsticks is also an accident. When John Walker, a British chemist, scraped a stick coated in chemicals across his hearth and discovered that it caught fire, the idea struck him to convert these to proper matchsticks. The “Friction Lights” were made of cardboard, but later it was switched to wooden splints and sandpaper.
Innovator- Alfred Nobel (1864)
Alfred Nobel was a chemist and an engineer, and he devoted his entire life to explosives research. Nobel experimented with nitroglycerin in Paris and mixed it with Kieselguhr, following which he discovered a way to control the substance.
Nobel combined the stabilized nitroglycerin paste with an earlier invented type of detonator to create dynamite, which was named after the Greek word for power, dynamic. Several accidents occurred in the laboratory, one of which resulted in an explosion in 1864 that destroyed Nobel’s factory and killed his brother Emil.
In the year 1867, Nobel patented the product. Soon, the dynamites were brought in to blast tunnels, build railways and roads, cut canals, roads, and even warfare. He established the Nobel Prizes in his will in November 1895 to promote world peace.
Innovator- Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen (1895)
X-rays are an example of a natural phenomenon, and the invention of the X-ray was a significant step forward in the field of medicine. In the laboratory in Wurzburg, a German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was performing a routine experiment on a vacuum tube covered in cardboard.
He discovered a fluorescent light generated by a material located near a coated screen when he shielded the tube with thick paper, proving that light particles were passed through solid objects. Amazed, Roentgen discovered that this incredible radiation could produce brilliant images, the first of which was a skeletal image of his wife’s hand.
He called the radiation X-rays because he didn’t know what they were. In 1901, he was endowed with the first Nobel Prize in Physics for his contributions.
4. Safety Glass
Innovator- Edward Benedictus (1903)
While working in his lab, scientist Edward Benedictus knocked over a flask. He discovered that, rather than shattering into a million tiny pieces, the glassware had only cracked while maintaining its shape. Further, he learned that what had kept the glass together was cellulose nitrate coating the inside of the glass, and safety glass was created.
Innovator- Dr Alexander Fleming (1928)
No list of unintentional innovations would be complete without mentioning penicillin, which helped develop modern medicine. At St. Mary’s Hospital, sir Fleming, a Scottish bacteriologist, discovered one of the world’s first antibiotics, penicillin, which helps cure bacterial infections.
Fleming discovered the antibiotic by chance when he left out cultures of Staphylococcus aureus in his lab for two weeks and returned to discover that their growth had been slowed by a mold called Penicillium notatum. Rob Hutton’s appeal to the High Court of Pedantry that this was discovery rather than an invention was denied. Every invention is a discovery.
In 1941, police officer Albert Alexander became the first person to be treated with penicillin after developing an uncontrollable bacterial infection due to a rose scratch. Anne Miller became the first civilian patient to be treated with penicillin and survived 14 years later in March 1942.
6. Teflon (Non-stick pans)
Innovator- Roy J. Plunkett (1938)
Today, we all want non-stick cookware that helps us prepare our food in less oil, which is good for our health. Teflon is a synthetic polymer used in various products ranging from non-stick cooking pans to nail polish. It is a genius invention created by accident that changed how we cook, clean and groom.
Roy Plunkett discovered polytetrafluoroethylene while looking for a new refrigerant. Plunkett was expecting to create a new variety of chlorofluorocarbons while researching refrigerants. But, the experiment resulted in the high melting point lubricant that is now used on all non-stick pans.
Du Pont trademarked Teflon in 1945, and it has proven to be important in areas such as aerospace, communications, electronics, and industrial processes. Teflon is now used in non-stick cookware, as well as soil and stain repellents for fabrics and textile products. Plunkett was honoured for his many brilliant inventions, and he was inducted into the Plastics Hall of Fame in 1973 and the National Inventors’ Hall of Fame in 1985.
7. Microwave Oven
Innovator- Percy LeBaron Spencer (1945)
The microwave oven is considered a notable invention among all the modern kitchen appliances as it makes the cooking of foods very quick and easy. Percy Spencer, an American self-taught engineer at Raytheon, worked with a microwave emitting magnetron when he discovered microwave cooking.
When he felt an odd sizzling sensation in his pants and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted, he noticed the heating effect of a high-power microwave beam. Spencer realized that the magnetrons were causing this phenomenon.
Utilizing this new knowledge, Spencer patented the invention along with his employer. After two years, “RadaRange,” which was the first microwave brand, was made available. In 1999, Percy Spencer was inducted into the National Inventors Hall of Fame.
Accidents happen, and it appears that some of them result in game-changing innovations. Given how bizarre some of these stories are, many of these innovations might not have happened if a single or two aspects had occurred differently.
Fortunately, the innovators of these useful innovations were able to turn mistakes into significant innovations. And these happy accidents aren’t limited to the innovations mentioned above. A variety of our all-time favourite foods were created by chance such as “Corn Flakes, Crispy potato chips, Coca-Cola, Popsicles, Cones of ice cream and few more”.
Even children’s toys, such as the Slinky and Play-Doh, were created by chance. If nothing else, this teaches us that it’s okay to make mistakes and that it’s okay to fail. Who knows, our next frustrating blunder could turn out to be the next big innovation of our time!
Edited by Prakriti Arora