Every day scientists are working hard to make discoveries that lead to inventions that will ultimately make our life easier, make the world a better place, heal illnesses etc, this list could go on and on. But do you believe there is a factor of luck in science at all? Or do you think all discoveries are intended to be made? I “accidently” found out that there are so many things that I use every day, and don’t even consider who invented those things that I have become dependent on, how they were made or why these things are invented. I will admit that not all of these every day things are a necessity in my life, but it is good to have them because they absolutely upgrade my daily activities.
These thoughts of origin came to my mind when I discovered that one of the most consumed soft drinks in the entire world – Coca Cola was an accidental discovery. The story behind this legendary drink started in Atlanta, with pharmacist John Pemberton who was trying to make a cure for headaches. He mixed together a bunch of ingredients – which to this day no one knows and the end result was Coca Cola. The recipe is still a guarded secret. It only took eight years of being sold in a drug store before the drink was popular enough to be sold in bottles.
The success story behind Coca Cola made me think about accidental discoveries, and wonder what else could be discovered by mistake. I did some research and accidentially discovered items got pretty interesting. The list is long of course, but I would like to share with you my 5 favorite accidental discoveries:
I believe Penicillin is one of the the biggest and most fortunate discoveries made in twentieth century and it was invented by scientist Alexander Fleming. Penicillin was the the first used, and is still one of the most widely used antibiotics. The story behind this discovery is Mr. Fleming didn’t clean up his workstation before going on vacation one day in 1928. When he came back, he noticed that there was a strange fungus on some of his cultures. Even stranger was that bacteria didn’t seem to thrive near those cultures. So here is my little piece of advice to all scientists: sometimes being overly tidy and clean is a disadvantage. It may hold you back from discovering new phenomenons. Care less for cleaning your laboratory or your experiment areas.
We would not have sweet tasting, yet sugar free stuff if saccharin was not invented, again accidentally, in 1879. Saccharin is the oldest artificial sweetener and it is one of the main ingredients in all our diet drinks and in foods that we consume daily. In this case scientist Constantine Fahlberg was doing some work in his laboratory and one day he did not wash his hands before he went to lunch. Chemical that he had spilled on his hands in the laboratory made whatever he ate extremely sweet. Fahlberg obtained a patent and started mass-producing saccharin in 1884. The use of saccharin did not become widespread until sugar was rationed during World War I, and its popularity increased during the 1960’s and 1970’s with the manufacture of Sweet’N Low and diet soft drinks. Here is another advice to scientists: if you are not working with acid or any hazardous chemicals why not taste them? You may get to invent the next big thing in the food industry!
POST IT NOTES
We all know and love post its, with their bright and cheerful colors and convenient function. These notes are found everywhere in offices, schools, and homes. Whenever you need little reminders and notes, the little colorful sticky notepad does the trick and can be attached to documents, walls, computer monitors, and just about anything else. Believe it or not I found them amazingly useful and help me remember things easier without creating a mess in my office desk. Adhesives that are being used on Post-it was accidentally invented by 3M employee Spencer Silver 1968. But the idea of using that Adhesive to create sticky little notes was developed by Arthur Fry as a way of holding bookmarks in his hymnal while singing in the church choir. That is how it started and today, Post-it notes are sold in more than 100 countries.
Even though microwaves were discovered only in the late 1940’s, today almost everyone has one in their kitchen. The story behind this accidental discovery is a fellow named Percy Spencer, who was experimenting with a new vacuum tube while doing some research for the Raytheon Corp. Spencer noticed his invention when the candy bar in his pocket began to melt and he did another experiment with popcorn it also began to pop. Then the company and Spencer realized the potential of this effect and built the first microwave that weighed about 750 lbs and cost approx. $5000. Of course with this weight and cost the first generation microwave was not a popular appliance but after a few adjustments in size and selling price it became on one of our household must have items. My advice to scientists: make sure to carry popcorn or candy in your pocket at all times. You never know what is going to happen at the laboratory right?
In 1896 physicist Henri Becquerel’s surprise discovery came after he ran a couple of experiments to see if naturally fluorescent minerals produced X-rays after they had been left out in the sun. The problem was he was doing the experiments in the winter, and there was one week with a long stretch of overcast skies. He left his equipment wrapped up together in a drawer and waited for a sunny day. When he got back to work, Becquerel realized that the uranium rock he had left in the drawer had imprinted itself on a photographic plate without being exposed to sunlight first. There was something very special about that rock. And this is how he discovered radioactivity.
We all experience unfortunate and unexpected incidents, mistakes that happen when we deviate from our plans. If we all knew the number of inventions that actually came alive from failures or mistakes, I am sure every scientist would never give up trying. Even though they failed on their experiments these scientist made other great uses for their inventions. And in the end I believe this is all that matters, to be able to gain something from your failures.