The Accidental Discoveries of Everyday Objects

Necessity may be the mother of invention, but it seems that quirkiness may have its part to play as well. Many of the greatest discoveries of our times have surprising stories behind them. It seems like many people have achieved greatness purely on accident. Studying these makes one wonder what the art of invention itself is.

Probably the most familiar story of this kind is Alexander Fleming’s invention of penicillin. In 1928, Fleming went on a vacation mid-way through an experiment. In a careless moment, Fleming left a dirty Petri dish behind. He returned to find the bacteria culture spread all over the plate. The bacteria culture in question was Staphylococcus, a bacterium that caused boils, sore throats and abscesses. However, Fleming quickly noticed an anomaly. The Petri dish was dotted with colonies of the bacterium, except for one area where there was mould growth. Fleming interpreted this to mean that the mould could kill the bacteria. He was right of course, because the mould was a rare strain of Penicillium notatum, and it secreted something that stopped bacterial growth.

Next, we have X-Rays. It was literally named X-Rays to hint at the fact that their origin was unclear at that time. German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered X-rays in 1895. Röntgen noticed in between his experiments with cathode ray tubes that there was an odd glow near the tube. These rays were rightly identified by Röntgen as a new type of radiation. As we know now, X-Rays are high frequency rays that have enough energy to penetrate through other things. Interestingly enough, Röntgen also became the first man to take a medical X-Ray. He took a picture of his wife’s hand, scaring the woman in the process.

Without anaesthesia, your trips to the dentist would probably be worse than they are now. There is some contention about who exactly discovered anaesthesia, but its origins are from the popular use of ether and nitrous oxide (laughing gas) in partying. Laughing parties, as they were called, involved a lot of people howling and laughing and having a good time. Eventually someone (most cite Horace Wells who was a dentist) noticed that these laughing partiers also seemed to be oblivious to pain. This led to the use of nitrous oxide as anaesthesia.

For a more explosive discovery, we look towards John Walker, an English chemist, who in 1826 became the first to discover a friction match, a stick coated with a mixture of chemicals that would light up when rubbed against phosphorous lined paper. It was a discovery born out of frustration. Walker, in 1826, noticed a dry lump at the end of his mixing stick. Trying to get rid of the lump, he struck the stick against those chemicals, which happened to include phosphorous compounds. Flames erupted and an invention was made.

Percy Spencer was a Raytheon engineer and he was testing magnetron, a source of vibrating electromagnetic waves of a certain frequency. They were used in military level equipment at the time and Spencer was trying to improve their power level. While working with magnetron, Spencer realised that the chocolate bar in his pant pocket started melting. He immediately recognised it as something remarkable. In keeping with the scientific method, Spencer repeated the experiment. First with egg, which didn’t go so well, and then with corn, which worked wonderfully. Thus, the microwave oven was born with popcorn accompanying it.

It seems so odd that common objects like matches and anaesthesia were discovered in such surprising ways. What seems even stranger is how these were not planned at all and they were matters of random coincidence (and some hard work). In the end, it seems that the common thread in these accidental discoveries is the fact that the people who made those mistakes cared enough to re-examine them. Maybe that is the lesson you need to learn. Mistakes don’t define us until we define them, and the only way to do that is to study the accident carefully. There is a lot to learn from accidents, and it seems the world would not be the same without them.

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