12 May 2010

The greatest accidental discoveries that changed the world

When we think of new inventions of creations, we often think of Thomas Edison trying hundreds of variations of the light bulb in order to get it right. However, many times inventions come accidentally, often as a side effect of something that the inventor is working on. These serendipity discoveries have ranged from the trivial to the profound. So, here are some of the greatest accidental discoveries that have helped change our world.

1. The Microwave

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Chances are you have a microwave in your home right now. Microwaves are everywhere these days. Back in 1970, one percent of all homes in America had one. By the 1980s, 25 percent had one and currently 90 percent of homes have microwaves in them. Well, this wonderful and convenient invention came about by accident.

In 1945, an engineer and inventor by the name of Percy Lebaron Spencer, was working on making magnetrons, which were used to create microwave radio signals for use in radars. While working with his magnetron, Spencer began to notice that the chocolate bar he had in his pocket was beginning to melt. Interested in what was happening, he deduced that the microwave had caused the chocolate bar to melt. Testing further, he tested out popcorn kernels and then an egg, which subsequently exploded.

From here, the microwave oven was born. While initial models were extremely large (750 pounds) and the size of a fridge in the 1950s, selling for over $4,000, as time went on the cost and size of the microwave oven decreased making it much more accessible.

2. Penicillin

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Probably the most famous of all accidental discoveries is penicillin. Back in 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming was working with a strain of bacteria called staphylococci when he went on vacation. Returning from vacation, he noticed that one of his glass culture dishes was left out and had become contaminated by a fungus. He threw it away, but later on he noticed that the staphylococcus bacteria were no longer growing in the area around the fungal mold.

After doing some more research, Fleming published his findings but not much attention was given to his discovery. It was not until 1945, almost 20 years after the initial discovery, that research by other scientist found that penicillin could be produced on an industrial scale. Penicillin would go on to completely change the way that doctors dealt with bacterial infections, thereby changing the world as we know it.

3. Stainless Steel

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While working on a way to prevent corrosion in rifle barrels, Harry Brearley accidently discovered something that would change both cutlery and architecture forever. With a background in steel, Brearley was given the opportunity at the age of 37 in 1908 to begin doing research into steel at Brown Firth Laboratories. Through his research, Brearley was trying to find a way to prevent heat and gasses from the rifle firing from eroding away the inner barrel of the rifle. On August 13, 1913, Brearley mixed .24 percent carbon and 12.8 chromium with steel to create what is now known as stainless steel.

At first Brearley did not realize what he had created but upon further testing with vinegar and lemon juice, he found that the steel was not reacting as typical steel would. With his new discovery, Brearley began to market his discovery as rustless steel for utensils, which at the time were all made of carbon, silver or nickel. After his employer saw how well the new type of steel, now called stainless steel, was selling, they tried to take the patent from Brearley by saying they owned the patent because it was filed while Brearley while he worked for them. The court case was never resolved and Brearley left the company in 1915 to begin working at another steel manufacturer where he could make his new stainless steel.

His discovery has been used to coat some buildings (including the Gateway Arch in St. Louis and the pinnacle of the Chrysler Building, as well as to revolutionize the cutlery industry and to help utensils last much longer than ever before. In addition, stainless steel is also used on furniture, in mechanical parts and on medical instruments.

4. Vulcanized Rubber

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Rubber comes from the rubber tree, and when it is not vulcanized it can rot and become very smelly. This rotting process is stopped thanks to vulcanized rubber. When Christopher Columbus brought rubber balls from the West Indies to Europe, the balls would slowly rot, become very rigid when cold and would be very sticky when it was warm. This made rubber a great material when conditions were perfect, but a horrible thing to work with when the conditions were anything but perfect. Vulcanized rubber was something many inventors attempted to create, including a many by the name of Charles Goodyear, who spent seven years boiling rubber with magnesia, nitric acid, lime and bronze powder to make it more useful. He was unable to find the right combination but by chance in 1939 he brushed off rubber powder and sulfur from his hands, which fell onto a hot stove. When the rubber melted, it reacted with sulphur to create vulcanized rubber. These days, vulcanized rubber is everywhere and much of our modern world from the tires on our cars to hockey pucks on the ice, is made up of the accidental invention of Charles Goodyear.

5. Superglue and Post-It Notes

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They are found in every office but before 1968, the Post-It Note did not exist. It was in that year that a scientist at 3M by the name of Jesse Kops, accidently developed a very-low pressure adhesive. This adhesive was just strong enough to make paper stick to something, but not strong enough to keep it there when you pull on the paper. After making his discovery, Kops attempted to market his invention within the company through seminars but he met no success. It was not until 1974 that one of his co-workers, Art Fry, thought of the idea of putting the adhesive on a bookmark to help anchor it within his hymnbook. Fry began to develop this idea and in 1977 3M launched the first Post-It Note. However the product was not a success because many consumers did not understand what exactly this new product could be used for. After giving out free samples in Boise, Idaho, they discovered that 90 percent of those who used the product went on to buy the product at the store. By 1980, the Post-It note was launched across the United States, followed by Europe and Canada the next year. Since that time, the Post-It Note has exploded in popularity around the world.

The mightiest adhesive of them all is superglue, but this too was discovered completely by accident. It was in 1942, when Dr. Harry Coover was trying to create a plastic for gun sights to be used on handheld weaponry when he realized that cyanoacrylates polymerised when they came in contact with moisture, which helped materials bind together much faster. Six years later, after more or less forgetting about his discovery, Coover realized that this new chemical would form a very strong bond without using heat or pressure. It was superglue and the revolutionary glue was born. While some may argue that superglue isn’t really an amazing invention, think about the many Vietnam soldiers who survived their trip from the jungle to the hospital thanks to their wounds being sealed with superglue.


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