10 Science Accidents That Changed The World

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Each year there is a considerable amount of money spent on science and innovation. But would you be surprised to hear that some of the most popular scientific inventions and consumer products were discovered by accident? Below is a top 10 list of accidental scientific discoveries that have changed the world. From text messaging to X-rays, you decide if they should have made the top 10 or not.

#10. Starting off at number 10 on my list is Viagra. Oh yes, the pranksters favourite and the relationship savoir was discovered by accident. Now personally this comes as a bit of a shock to me as Viagra is a relatively new drug. Anyway… Sildenafil started its life as a promising new drug for heart disease. But when this revolutionary new drug was trailed at a UK hospital, male test subjects were reporting a peculiar side effect: you’ve guessed it – unexpected erections. This drug was then marketed in the late 1990s as Viagra and as we know, it wasn’t a flop. The wonder-drug for those with heart disease and erectile dysfunction!

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#9. Number 9 continues the theme of malfunctioning tickers [hearts], the pacemaker. You know what it’s like, you are casually inventing a device that records fast heart beats, then BOOM! You unknowingly invent something that saves millions of lives. What! That has never happened to you!? #Shocked! Well in Wilson Greatbatch’s case he did just that. In his attempt to make a circuit to record fast heart beats, Greatbatch accidentally pulled out of his ‘toolbox’  a 1-megaohm resister instead of a 10,000 megaohm resister in which intended to use. This 1-megaohm resister pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds, stopped for 1 second and then repeated. Strangely enough, this is the pace of a resting heart. The first successful pacemaker was implanted in a 77-year-old in 1960 who survived for another 18 months after insertion. The pacemaker is now fitted in over a 100,000 patients each year in the US alone.

pacemaker

#8. Next in the top 10 list is the cooking enthusiasts dream substance – Teflon. Teflon, as we all know is the slippery substance put on our pans to keep our breakfast from burning. But how did it come about? Well a common misconception of Teflon is that it was produced by the smart folks at NASA. Well sorry space fans, the truth isn’t quite as glamorous (or maybe it is – you decide). Roy Plunkett was playing with CFC gases in an attempt to make a new type of refrigeration. Plunkett stored cylinders of gas known as tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) in dry ice to stop them exploding within the lab. When he came to use the gas he noticed waxy white flakes in its place (oops!). This new substance was found to be heat, water, and acid resistant and was incredibly slippery. Though we know Teflon to be an incredible substance in the kitchen today, it wasn’t until a French engineer (Marc Gregoire) figured out how to bond it to aluminum that the world got its first non-stick pan. As with most successful science discoveries a brand name followed – Teflon.

restaurant frying pans

# 7. More fortunate kitchen discoveries comes in at number 7. The microwave oven. In 1946 Percy Spencer, a senior engineer for Raytheon who supplied radar equipment to the US military, was working in his MIT radiation laboratory. Spencer was working on a more powerful magnetron (in English – the vacuum tube at the heart of radar devices). When he decided to stand in front of a test model, Spencer noticed that a chocolate bar had melted inside his pocket. Instead of thinking ‘that’s my mid-afternoon snack spoiled’ he was intrigued (or possibly fooling around) and decided to hold a bag of unpopped popcorn up to the device. This marked the beginning of the microwave oven.

#6. A colourful entry at number 6 – synthetic dye. At the tender age of 18 William Perkin was working as a lab assistant in London. He had been set a task to come up with a way of producing quinine, an expensive antimalarial drug. In a failed attempt, Perkin’s noticed a purple sludge at the bottom of one of his beakers. After playing with the sludge, he soon realised that he had created a vibrant  artificial dye, not seen in nature. This scientific accident marked the birth of an industry which looked to capatilise on what chemists could create.

synthetic dye - market

#5. Half way down my top 10 list is vulcanized rubber. Charles Goodyear dedicated a whole decade to rubber. Finding ways to make it easier to work with. In a fortunate turn of events Goodyear spilled a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat of the oven charred the mixture but luckily for Goodyear, it didn’t ruin it. Upon Goodyear’s inspection, he realised that the mixture had hardened but was still quite usable. This lucky spillage has been the leading product in everything from tires to the latest shoes.

Tires

#4. X-rays. Physicist Wilhelm Rontgen was busy at work in his lab investigating the properties of cathode rays. Suddenly he noticed a flicker on a barium platinocyanide screen. To Wilhelm’s shock he noticed a skeletal hand. Some mysterious emanation was passing through the air – and through his flesh allowing his bones to cast shadows on the dimly glimmering screen. It must have been like Hogwarts magic! The X in X-rays stood for their unknown nature. The X-rays discovered by Wilhelm were replicated in laboratories around the world. Within 20 years of the discovery X-rays were found to have extraordinary medical applications.

#3. Number 3 sees a super annoyingly, finger sticking substance – Super glue. In the war time era of world war II, a chemist called Harry Coover headed a team at Eastman Kodak. They were trying to create a clear plastic to be used for transparent gun sights. In an unsuccessful attempt a substance was created which simply stuck everything together. Unknowingly they had created what is known as a cyanoacrylate. Coover quickly realised that cyanoacrylates had the amazing property of sticking absolutely everything together (not confirmed) in the presence of moisture. This newly discovered glue was incredibly strong but didn’t require heat nor did it require pressure to activate it.

super glue fingers

#2. Maybe not a surprise to the techies, but in at number 2  is text messaging. In 1987, European bureaucrats drew up technical standards for fully digital mobile phones. During the design phase, officials wanted a system that would work across the whole of Europe. So, written into the script was a tiny detail that enabled telecom engineers to test the system and send short messages back and forth to each other to help manage the mobile network. But quickly enough consumers and phone operators realised that the ‘Short Message Service’ (SMS) was more useful than what it was designed for. I guess the rest is history. In 2011 over 2 trillion SMS messages were sent in the US.

#1. Finally at the top of my list see’s a surprising entry. The worlds most popular soft drink – Coke. As you have seen and probably know by now, there have been many accidents that have been a success. But no invention, at least not in the  food industry, has had as much success as Coca-Cola. A pharmacist named John Pemberton from Atlanta (US), was trying to come up with a cure for headaches. After mixing together a number of ingredients (which is a closely guarded secret), he came up with what we now know as Coca-Cola. After 8 years of being sold in drug stores, the drink became popular enough to sell by the bottle.

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I hope this gives you a little taste of the scientific accidents that have changed the world. I wonder what the next  scientific accident will be, and will it change the world? Do you know of any scientific mishaps that have led to great things? Let me know!

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About krisfarrant

Kris is a postgraduate (Cognitive Neuroscience) who loves to talk/rant about science. From the weird to the wonderful. Follow Science Rant for the latest in quirky science stories. Twitter: @krisfarrant Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/ScienceRant

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