Monthly Archives: October 2013

Accidental Discoveries in History: HOUSEHOLD PRODUCTS

Household Inventions

Household Inventions

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

Marcel Proust

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of household products:

Teflon

Who: Roy Plunkett, young chemist for DuPont.

When: 1938

Why:  He was trying to make a new kind of chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs), the hot new thing in refrigeration science.  He filled a pressurized gas can with a concoction of TFE gas and hydrochloric acid (don’t try this at home, kids); he cooled it and put it away until he was ready to use it.  When he opened the canister, it was empty except for strange, slippery white flakes at the bottom; it turned out to be resistant to extreme heat, and chemicals.  It was first used by the military in the Manhattan Project, and then the automotive industry.  Nearly 30 years later it had finally come home, literally:  Non-stick cookware.

The Microwave

Who: Percy Spencer, American Engineer on a snack break.

When: 1945

Why: His snack break put him in the wrong place at the right time.  He was a leading scientist during World War II, and at work in the Raytheon company labs, he was inspecting a magnetron and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted.  I’m sure his wife appreciated that more fully when she next did laundry.  Others had noticed that phenomenon but hadn’t investigated any further; but it got Percy thinking, and after a few more experiments (and yes, popcorn and exploding eggs were involved), the first microwave oven was born.  But like early computers, it was big and impractical for home use.  By 1967 more compact versions began invading American homes, and the rest is history.

Velcro

Who: Georges de Mestral, Swiss Engineer on a hike.

When: 1948

Why: Out with his dog on a hiking trip in 1941, he noticed burrs clinging to his trousers and his dog’s fur; on closer inspection he saw that the burr’s hooks clung to anything loop-shaped.  But even after he’d perfected his invention (named Velcro as a combination of the French terms velours, “velvet,” and “crochet”), it took years for it to… well, stick.  It was not fashionable-looking enough for the fashion industry to take seriously; its first big break was for the aerospace program for spacesuits, and then eventually skiers saw a similarity in potential on skiing outfits, and it stuck from then on out.  And now kids don’t know what to do with shoe laces.

Silly Putty

Who: James Wright, General Electric Scientist

When: 1943

Why: For the war effort, he was working on a cheaper alternative to rubber when he mixed boric acid and silicon oil (which one does, obviously).  It didn’t work as rubber, but they had a blast stretching and bouncing it, and the silly idea for putty was discovered.  And lucrative.

Slinky

Who: Richard James, Naval Engineer

When: 1943; on shelves since November 1945.

Why:  During World War II, Richard James was working on the development of fine springs to keep ships’ sensitive instruments from bouncing around on rough seas.  He accidentally knocked one off of the desk, and watched as it “stepped” over a few obstacles and ended by righting and recoiling itself on the floor.  By experimenting to find the right steel, he set up a company, along with his wife; it only hit success after setting up a demonstration on an inclined plane in the Gimbles Department Store in Philadelphia; they sold their entire stock of 400 within 90 minutes, and the rest is history.

Play Doh

Who: Noah McVicker’s nephew, Joe McViker

When: 1930s as its original purpose; reinvented as a modelling clay in the late 1940s.

Why:  Originally invented by Noah McViker as a wallpaper cleaner at a time when most homes burned coal, making it necessary to clean regularly; but after the war America switched to natural gas heating, and the company faced bankruptcy.  Joe McViker discovered that children were using the substance to make Christmas ornaments, and he got the bright idea to re-market it as modelling clay.

Post-it notes

Who: Dr. Spencer Silver, working in the 3M research laboratories.

When: 1968

Why: Trying to invent a super-strong adhesive, he failed, but tried unsuccessfully for five years to promote it within the company as “low-tack,” reusable pressure-sensitive adhesive.  In 1974 Art Fry, his colleague, got the idea to use it in his hymnbook, and then began developing the concept, releasing it in 1977-78.  The original yellow colour was simply because the lab next door to the Post-It team only had yellow scrap paper to try it on.

Cellophane

Who: Jacques Brandenberger, Swiss Textile Engineer.

When: Inspiration – 1900; Product release – 1908

Why:  Seated in a restaurant, he noticed a customer spill a bottle of wine onto the tablecloth.  Convinced he could discover a way to apply a clear, waterproofing film to such a tablecloth, he began to experiment, eventually applying liquid viscose to the cloth.  But the cloth became too stiff and brittle, and the experiment failed.  Or did it?  He noticed that the coating peeled off in a transparent film that might actually have other uses.  By 1908 he’d developed a machine to produce sheets of the stuff, and marketed it as Cellophane.

Band-Aids

Who: Earle Dickson, American cotton buyer for the Johnson & Johnson company.

When: 1921

Why:  His wife Josephine was always cutting herself in the kitchen while preparing food.  He noticed that the present solution, gauze wrapped until adhesive tape, soon fell off her active fingers; he decided to invent something that would stay in place and protect minor wounds better.  He took a piece of gauze, stuck it in the centre of a piece of tape, and then covered it with crinoline to keep it sterile.  His boss James Johnson saw the invention and, to his credit, not only manufactured the product for the public but made Earle Dickson Vice-President.

Superglue

Who: Harry Coover, a chemist at Eastman Kodak during World War II.

When: 1942

Why:  Head of a team trying to find a clear plastic to use to make transparent gun sights, one of their unsuccessful attempts stuck to everything it touched; the chemical compound of cyanoacrylate was discovered, and promptly disregarded as a failure.  In 1951 he rediscovered it and this time recognized the commercial value of it, and it went to market in 1958.

Matches

Who: John Walker, British pharmacist.

When: 1826

Why: While stirring a mix of chemicals with a stick, he noticed a dried lump on the end of the stick, and tried to scrape it off.  Spark and flame.  He recognized the significance, and marketed the first matches as “Friction Lights,” selling them at his pharmacy, making the first sticks out of cardboard but soon replacing them with 3-inch long, hand-cut wooden splints, packaged in a box with a piece of sandpaper for striking.  Unwisely, he decided not to patent his invention because he considered it a benefit to mankind; thus it didn’t take long for others to rip off his idea and take over the market, leading him to stop his own production.

Safety glass

Who: Édouard Bénédictus, French artist and chemist.

When: 1909

Why:  In his lab he once dropped a glass flask; it broke but didn’t shatter, and he realized that the interior was coated with plastic cellulose nitrate, holding the broken pieces together.  Shattering glass was, until that moment, one of the biggest dangers in a car accident.  And it remained a danger, as manufacturers rejected his idea to keep their own costs down.  But his glass coating became standard issue for gas mask lenses in World War 1; with its success on the battlefield, the automobile industry finally caved in to the demand for safety and by the 1930s most cars were fitted with glass that didn’t shatter upon impact.

Vaseline

Who: Robert Chesebrough, oilfield worker.

When: 1859

Why:  Working on an oilfield in Pennsylvania, he noticed that the oil workers complained about something they called “Rod wax” forming on and gumming up their drilling equipment; the only redeeming factor as far as they were concerned was that it seemed to speed up the healing of small cuts and burns.  Interested, he took a sample back to his lab in Brooklyn.  Eventually he was able to isolate the substance from ordinary petroleum, and began wounding himself to test it; it worked wonders.  The name Vaseline comes from “Wasser” (German for water) and Elaion (Greek for oil).

Blue Jeans

Who: Jacob Davis (-Youphes)

When: ca. 1869

Why:  In 1868, Latvian immigrant Jacob Youphes moved his tailor shop from New York City and Maine to Reno, Nevada, and began making, among other things, tents and horse blankets from sturdy cotton fabric, with rivets for added strength.  In the late 1870s a woman asked him for a pair of cheap trousers for a large husband who had the habit of going through trousers rather quickly.  He decided to try his hand at trousers made from the material (which he’d been buying through a dry goods salesman, Levi Strauss, in San Francisco); when they were a success, he wrote to Strauss and suggested they partner on a patent.  Since Davis’ name did not appear on the actual product, his connection is little-known, Levi Strauss more often than not being credited with the innovation.

The cloths we know as denim and jeans has a long pedigree:  Jeans material was first created in Genoa, Italy; their sailors used it to protect their goods from the weather, and the cloth was exported throughout Europe.  In the French city of Nimes they attempted to reproduce the fabric they got from Gênes (the French name for Genoa), but instead discovered a different twill, which became known as Denim (literally, “de Nimes”, of Nimes).

Nylon

Who: Wallace Carothers, Julian Hill, and other researchers for the DuPont Company

When: 1930

Why: They were studying chains of molecules called polymers in an attempt to find a substitute for silk; pulling a heated rod from a beaker containing alcohol- and carbon-based molecules, the mixture stretched and, at room temperature, had a silky texture. This work culminated in the production of nylon marking the beginning of a new era in synthetic fibres.

Modern Dry-Cleaning

Who: Jean-Baptiste Jolly

When: Mid-19th century

Why: From ancient times, Romans used ammonia (obtained from urine) with Fuller’s earth to clean their clothes; so glad times have changed.  Early modern dry-cleaning was discovered by the French dye-works owner, Jean-Baptiste Jolly in the mid-19th century, when his maid spilled kerosene onto a tablecloth.  The next day it was clean, and from this idea was born the idea for cleaning people’s clothes as a business.

WD-40

Who: Norm Larsen, founder of the Rocket Chemical Company, in San Diego, California.

When: 1953; commercially available in 1958.

Why:  Mr. Larsen set out to find a formula to prevent corrosion on nuclear missiles; the 40th attempt at Water Displacement, primarily composed of hydrocarbons, was successful.  Since then fans of the product have found over 2,000 uses for it, which can be viewed here.  The product is not patented to avoid revealing the exact contents, so no one knows exactly what it is made of.

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Accidental Discoveries in History: SCIENCE / TECHNOLOGY

Ideas & Accidental Discoveries

Accidental Discoveries

“I have not failed. I’ve just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.” (On inventing the light bulb)

Thomas A. Edison

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of science and technological discoveries:

Radioactivity

Who: Henri Becquerel, French physicist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1896

Why: A bad spate of cloudy days.  He’d been working with naturally fluorescent minerals (in this case a uranium rock), to see if they’d produce x-rays if left out in the sun.  It was winter, and when a week of clouds moved in he wrapped up his equipment and stuck it in a drawer to wait for a sunny day.  You really don’t want to hear, “Oops” and “radioactive” in the same sentence, but that’s what he eventually realised he’d discovered:  When he came back to his bundle, he found that the rock had imprinted itself onto the x-ray plate without having been exposed to sunlight.  Marie & Pierre Curie eventually put a name to the “oops.”

Plastic

Who: Leo Hendrik Baekeland, Belgian chemist with more than 50 patents to his name.

When: 1907

Why: He was actually looking for a substitute for shellac, which was expensive and made from Asian beetles.  His experiments produced a mouldable material that could withstand high temperatures without distorting, and he called it “Bakelite.”  It soon became clear that it had countless uses, and now we wonder what on earth some things were made out of before he came along.

Vulcanized Rubber

Who:  Charles Goodyear

When: 1839

Why:  He’d spend years trying to find ways to make rubber easier to work with, while still being resistant to heat and cold.  One day he accidentally spilled a mixture of rubber, sulphur and lead onto a hot stove (I hate it when that happens).  In this case charred on the stove turned out to be a good thing, because it wasn’t ruined – it was vulcanized rubber.  Unfortunately, like many inventors, he wasn’t very good with money; he died $200,000 in debt. He didn’t even live to see the famous company named after him, as it took his name nearly 40 years after his death.

Smart Dust

Who: Jamie Link, Chemistry graduate working on her doctorate at the University of Californian, San Diego.

When: 2003

Why:  One of the silicon chips she was working on burst; but she discovered that the tiny bits still functions as sensors.  Among other things, they can be used to monitor the purity in water, detect airborne biological hazards, and even locate tumour cells in the human body.  In this case, homework blowing up in her face wasn’t a bad thing.

The Big Bang

Who: Robert Wilson and Arno Penzias, radio astronomers

When: 1964

Why: While working with the Holmdel antenna in New Jersey, they noticed a confusing background noise.  After eliminating the obvious and the not-so obvious, they realized that it must be cosmic microwave radiation leftovers from a universe-forming explosion (that’s just what I thought).  Oddly enough, just 37 miles up the road, Robert Dicke and his team had also been working on the theory (which had been around for decades, by the way) and searching for that background noise; when he heard of their discovery his comment was, “Well boys, we’ve been scooped.”  He wasn’t the one that won the Nobel Prize.  Incidentally, the term “Big Bang” was coined during a 1949 radio broadcast to highlight the difference between the two scientific models of “steady state” and “expanding state” cosmology.

Dynamite

Who: Alfred Nobel, Swedish Chemist and Engineer.  Yes, the same one the Nobel Peace Prize is named after.

When: 1867

Why: Trying (and failing several times) to stabilize Nitro-glycerine, an explosive liquid.  In 1864 his own brother and several others were killed in an explosion in Stockholm, and some think it pushed him even more to find a way to transport it safely.  Once while transporting the substance, he noticed that one of the cans leaked into the packing material, a sedimentary rock called Kieselguhr.  He explored the possibility of the mixture as a stabilizer, and patented his discovery as Dynamite.  It revolutionized building and mining, saving untold lives from accidental explosions.

Text messaging

Who: Developed in the Franco-German GSM cooperation in 1984 by Friedhelm Hillebrand and Bernard Ghillebaert.

When: 1984

Why:  Originally written into technical standard specs for mobile phones across Europe, the script enabled telecom engineers testing the system to send short messages back and forth between themselves to help manage the networks; but consumers got wind of that “Short Message Service” (SMS), and have been digressing in spelling and syntax ever since.

Stainless Steel

Who: Harry Brearly, English metallurgist for an arms manufacturer.

When: 1912

Why:  Given the task to develop a non-rusty gun barrel, Harry began testing his creation with various corrosives, including lemon juice; he realized that it would be great for cutlery (not to mention thousands of other uses that have since been discovered).  But really, he owes credit to a Frenchman from 1821, who first recognized the iron chromium alloys’ resistance to corrosion; at the time however, the manufacturing of it was not within their technical grasp.

Modern Fingerprinting

Who: Researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan.

When: 1982

Why:  They had cracked a fish tank, and patched it together again with superglue (cyanoacrylate).  They noticed that the fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in fingerprints on the glass, making them clearly visible.  It is now an important tool in forensic science.

Fireworks

Who: A Chinese cook, according to legend

When: 2,000 years ago.

Why: They were accidentally invented by a cook who mixed together charcoal, sulfur, and saltpeter — all items commonly found in kitchens in those days apparently. The mixture burned and when compressed in a bamboo tube, exploded. I wonder if he survived to tell the tale.

Phonograph

Who: Thomas Edison, credited with the first successful phonograph that both recorded and reproduced sound.

When: 1877

Why:  There were several men in the throes of developing devices similar to a phonograph, but had either not been successful, had limited success, or had not even made it past the basic concept phase.  In the summer of 1877 Thomas Edison was tinkering with a paper cylinder and a piece of tinfoil that would record telegraph signals; his was not an accidental invention as much as it was an educated – very educated – guess of trial and error.  He knew the principles of various concepts, and put them together like puzzle pieces until he got the results he felt could be possible – recording and playing back the human voice.  Think how amazed he would be to know we don’t even need such devices anymore, it a completely digital age… we use satellites in space to chat half way around the world, real-time.

Ink Jet Printer

Who: Ichiro Endo, Engineer at Canon.

When: August 1957

Why:  The Canon engineer discovered the principle, as the story goes, when he set a hot soldering iron next to his pen; it reacted by spitting out ink just moments later, and the principle behind the ink jet printer was born.

Gun Powder

Who: Chinese alchemists

When: 9th century

Why: Ironically, they were trying to create an elixir of immortality; we can only assume that the discoverers failed; let us hope their first attempt didn’t turn out to be their last.  Ingredients are saltpetre (potassium nitrate), sulphur, realgar (arsenic sulphide).  The first use of gunpowder was in Chinese fireworks; but typically human, it didn’t take long for a good thing to be abused and shortly thereafter it was being used in crude cannons and exploding weapons. ‘Fire rockets’ were made by capping bamboo reeds, filling them with gunpowder and bits of metal, and then lit and shot from a bow; you could say that they were the first solid-fuel rockets.

Phosphorous

Who: Henning Brand, German scientist

When: 1669

Why: For some odd reason, Brand decided to store 50 buckets of his urine in his cellar for a few months in the hopes that they might turn into buckets of gold.  It may seem odd to us; but urine has long been used in manufacturing; it was used to wash hair before shampoos were invented, and was used in various products, including clothing dyes, during the Industrial Revolution.  Strangely it didn’t work; but after letting the urine stand until it was purified, he then boiled down the liquid until he was left with a paste. He then heated this paste to very high temperatures and ended up with phosphorus. Of course.  That’s what you do with that much urine, apparently.

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Accidental Discoveries in History: FOOD

WikiCells - Edible wrapping coming soon!

WikiCells – Edible wrapping coming soon!

“What this power is I cannot say; all I know is that it exists and it becomes available only when a man is in that state of mind in which he knows exactly what he wants and is fully determined not to quit until he finds it.”

Alexander Graham Bell

Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of edible discoveries:

Coke

Who: John Pemberton, pharmacist, Colonel of the Confederate Army wounded in the Battle of Columbus, Georgia.

When: 1886

Why: Like so many wounded war veterans of his time, he had become addicted to morphine to handle the pain.  Being a pharmacist, he wanted to find a cure for the addiction.  Inadvertently, he ended up inventing what has became another addiction for untold millions:  Coca-Cola.  And like many elixirs of the time, his was touted as “a valuable brain tonic” that would relieve exhaustion, calm nerves and cure headaches.  But sadly, Pemberton died two years later and never saw his medicinal mixture give birth to the soft drink empire.

Saccharin

Who: Constantin Fahlberg, unhygienic chemist.

When: 1879

Why: He’d been trying to find ways to use coal tar; he went home for dinner, and noticed that his wife’s bread rolls were unusually sweet; no, she hadn’t changed her recipe – he just hadn’t washed his hands before eating.  He went back to his lab and taste-tested until he found the sweet source.  That’s just gross.

Cornflakes Cereal

Who: William Keith Kellogg, assisting his brother, Dr. John Harvey Kellogg, the superintendent of The Battle Creek Sanatarium in Michigan.

When: 1895

Why: One day while making bread dough with boiled wheat, he left it sitting while he helped his brother and when he returned to roll out the dough, it came out flaky.  He decided to bake it anyway, creating a crunchy and flaky snack.  It was a huge hit with the patients, and so he set out to manufacture it on a larger, and more intentional, scale.  He switched to using corn and launched the “Battle Creek Toasted Corn Flakes Company” in 1906; eventually he realized that his name was more catchy.

Brandy

Who: An intrepid soul.

When: Around the 12th Century

Why:  Concentrated alcoholic beverages have been around probably as long as alcohol has been transported; by evaporating the water from wine, it was more stable for transportation, and then reconstituted at the other end.  At some point someone decided to skip the rehydration phase and just go for it, and brandy (“burnt wine” – in the distillation process, a portion was lit to test the purity) was born.

Potato chips

Who: George Crum, Chef in Saratoga Springs, New York.

When: 1853

Why: The usual story says that he was trying to please an unhappy, picky customer; after several complaints that the potato was not thin enough or cooked enough, he sliced them paper-thin and fried them to a crisp.  The customer loved them, and the name “Saratoga Chips” persisted until the mid-20th century.

Chocolate Chip Cookies

Who:  Mrs. Ruth Graves Wakefield, owner of the Toll House Inn, in Whitman, Massachusetts.

When: 1930

Why: While making cookies one day, she ran out of regular baker’s chocolate and substituted broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate, thinking they would melt into the batter.  They didn’t, and chocolate chips were born.  She sold the recipe to Nestle in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips (rather than patenting it and making millions!).  Every bag of Nestle chocolate chips in America has a variation of her original recipe printed on the packaging.

Popsicles

Who: Frank Epperson, 11 years old at the time, of Oakland, California.

When: 1905

Why: He left a mixture of powdered soda and water out on the porch, which happened to have a stir stick in it; that night the temperatures reached a record low, and the next morning he discovered his frozen fruit-flavoured drink; the “Epsicle” was born.  18 years later he patented that little Eureka moment, and the Popsicle became intentional.

Chewing Gum

Who: Thomas Adams

When: 1870

Why: Chewing gum has actually been around for over 5,000 years; Neolithic tribes used various tree saps, and the Aztecs used chicle as a basis for a gum-like substance.  But they didn’t patent it and market it.  So along came Thomas Adams:  Given a supply of chicle from Mexico, his original intention was to use it as a rubber substitute; it failed in that capacity, but instead he cut it into strips and marketed it as “Adams New York Chewing Gum” in 1871, becoming the first mass-produced chewing gum in the world.

Ice Cream Cones

Who: The modern, mechanized version: Frederick Bruckman, 1912

When: 1912

Why:  Edible cones, made from little waffles rolled, were mentioned in French cooking books as early as 1825.  Several Americans vie for the title of “Creator of the modern ice cream cone,” but all seem to appear around the same time, the 1904 World’s Fair and shortly thereafter, which tells me someone got the idea from someone, tried to patent it (unsuccessfully) and everyone else jumped on the idea claiming first dibs.  But as far as history goes, it’s no new idea – just necessity being the mother of invention.  Frederick Bruckman is credited with the modern ice cream cone, as he invented a machine for rolling them.

Champagne

Who:  Ah.  Now that’s a simple question with a thorny answer.  Not a French Benedictine Monk (Dom Pérignon); in reality, he did everything he could to make the wine less sparkly because it kept exploding in his winery.  In actual fact it was the English who recognized the added value of bubbly wine, exploding bottles and all.  The first to recognize the process, document it, and enjoy it, was Christopher Merret, English scientist.

When: 1662

Why:  Merret “was born in Gloucestershire in either 1614 or 1615 (the Champagne seems to have clouded his memory), studied at Oxford (a notorious training ground for heavy drinkers), and in 1661 translated and expanded an Italian treatise on bottle manufacture. It seems to be this that drew his attention to the question of exploding Champagne, because the following year he published a paper entitled ‘Some Observations Concerning the Ordering of Wines’. In this, he tried to explain why wine became bubbly, and identified the second fermentation in the bottle as the main cause. He also described adding sugar or molasses to wine to bring on this second fermentation deliberately. Sparkliness was a positive thing, Merret said, and could be produced in any wine, particularly now that England was making bottles that were capable of holding in the bubbles. Thus, while Dom Pérignon was trying to do away with the fizz, the Brits wanted more.” [1000 Years of Annoying the French (pp. 179-180). Random House UK. Kindle Edition.]

Sandwiches

Who: Just about everyone except John Montagu, 4th Earl of Sandwich, an 18th-century English aristocrat.

When: from the 18th century known as a “sandwich;” from antiquity and various cultures from before history began to be recorded.

Why: In the 1700s, the Earl of Sandwich was often too busy to sit down for a proper meal, so he had his servants bring his meat placed between slices of bread to avoid greasy fingers from handling the meat directly.  People began asking for “the same as Sandwich.”  Throughout Asia, Africa, and South America, flatbread has long been used to scoop food from plate to mouth (as cutlery had not yet been invented, or was not widespread).  Those aristocrats could have very easily asked for “the same as savages,” and we would thus be eating savages today.  Cannibalistic, if you ask me…

Liquorice Allsorts

Who: Charlie Thompson, a sales representative of Geo. Bassett & Co.

When: 1899

Why: Charlie supposedly dropped a tray of samples he was showing a client in Leicester, mixing up the various sweets. He scrambled to re-arrange them, and the client loved the bright mix of colours and shapes, and Allsorts hit the shelves soon after.

Crepe Suzette

Who: Disputed; reputed to be fourteen year-old assistant waiter Henri Charpentier, at the Maitre at Monte Carlo’s Café de Paris.

When: 1895

Why:  Preparing desert for the English Prince of Wales (future King Edward VII), Henri accidentally caught the cordial of the crepe on fire.  Rather than start over he tasted it and thought it delicious, so he served it; the Prince asked for the dish to be named for one of his companions, Suzette (as Crepe in French is feminine, rather than masculine).

Worcestershire sauce

Who: John Wheeley Lea and William Henry Perrins, British chemists.

When: 1837

Why: The story goes that someone asked them to attempt a recipe for curry powder; they tried, and made it liquid; it was far too strong to be palatable, so they put it in a cellar barrel for a few years.  Looking to make space, they were going to dispense with the offensive product, but tried it again and found that it had fermented and become milder, and actually quite good thank you.  They began to market it, and it became a success.

Kool-Aid

Who: Edwin Perkins, innovator and entrepreneur, Hastings, Nebraska.

When: 1927

Why: Perkins’ father opened a general store in town where the boy was introduced to new and exciting food products such as Jell-O. One of the company’s offerings that proved most popular was a concentrated drink mix called Fruit Smack, which came in six flavours. A four-ounce bottle made enough for an entire family to enjoy at an affordable price. But shipping the bottles of syrup was costly and breakage was becoming a problem. In 1927 this prompted him to develop a method of removing the liquid from Fruit Smack so the residual powder could be re-packaged in envelopes; consumers would then only have to add water to enjoy the drink at home. Perkins designed and printed envelopes with a new name —Kool Ade —to package the powder with (later this spelling would change to “Kool-Aid”).  Because the packets were lightweight, shipping costs dropped; Perkins sold each Kool-Aid packet for a dime, wholesale by mail at first, to grocery, candy and other stores. By 1929, Kool-Aid was a nation-wide product.

Life Savers Candy

Who: Clarence Crane (Cleveland, Ohio), chocolate manufacturer

When: 1912

Why: During the summer of 1912, Mr. Crane invented a “summer candy” that could withstand heat better than chocolate. Since the mints looked like miniature life preservers, he called them Life Savers. After registering the trademark, Crane sold the rights to the peppermint candy to Edward Noble for $2,900. Noble created tin-foil wrappers to keep the mints fresh, instead of cardboard rolls. Pep-O-Mint was the first Life Saver flavour. Since then, many different flavours of Life Savers have been produced. The five-flavour roll first appeared in 1935.

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Accidental Discoveries in History: HEALTH / MEDICINE

Pill bottle spilledThose individuals who have “Eureka” moments are those who are prepared for that moment of discovery:  They begin with an inquisitive mind, which nurtures creative thinking, which is supported by collecting background information, educating themselves; to that they add the right tools, and an open mind that looks at the possibilities in what others might see as “mistakes.”  Most inventions are the results of exploration, experimentation, blood, sweat and tears, and lots of sleepless nights.  But there are some moments of serendipity, those “Hmm.  That’s strange…” discoveries that are not lightly tossed aside but seen for their potential.  It’s taking the lemons life has thrown their way, tossing in a wet rag and a few copper and zinc coins, and coming up with a battery.

Here’s a line-up of a few of those wet rag-tossers of health and medical discoveries, with others to follow over the next few posts:

 “Our greatest weakness lies in giving up. The most certain way to succeed is always to try just one more time.”

Thomas A. Edison

Penicillin

Who:  Alexander Fleming, Scottish scientist and Nobel laureate.

When: 1928

Why: He didn’t clean up his work station before leaving one day in 1928.  When he returned he noticed a strange fungus on some of his cultures, but it wasn’t growing near certain cultures.  His “bad science” mistake led to the discovery of the first, most important, and still-widely used antibiotic.

Pacemaker

Who:  Wilson Greatbatch, American Engineer and absent-minded professor.

When: 1960

Why:  In 1958 he was trying to make a circuit to help record heartbeat sounds.  When he reached into a box of resistors he accidentally pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000 ohm resistor.  It pulsed to a familiar rhythm – a perfect heartbeat.  Actually, the first pacemakers go back as far as 1899; but Greatbatch’s invention was the first successfully implanted cardiac pacemaker.

Mauve

Who: William Perkin, 18-year-old English chemist, eventually Sir William Perkin.

When: 1856

Why: He was trying to cure malaria, attempting to produce artificial quinine; his experiment produced a murky blob; but the more he looked at it, he realised the beautiful possibilities… he’d instead made the first-ever synthetic dye.  He’d inadvertently become the poster boy for money-generating science, making it interesting for the curious-minded; he’s known as the founder of science-based industry.  One of those curious minds just happened to be a German bacteriologist named Paul Ehrlich, who used that murky blog, now known as mauveine, to pioneer chemotherapy and immunology.

Viagra

Who: Nicholas Terrett and Peter Ellis (the names on the patent); more generally, a group of pharmaceutical chemists working at Pfizer’s Sandwich, Kent, research facility in England.

When: 1996

Why: Originally attempting to develop a drug to treat Angina Pectoris – chest pains – they failed in their primary aim, but its side effects were startling, and now famous.

Anesthesia

Who: Good question.  It seems to have developed independently on several occasions, from the 12th century onwards.  Laughing gas was discovered in 1772 by Joseph Priestly, English scientist.

When: Good Question.

Why: In the 1800s, inhaling either nitrous oxide (laughing gas) or ether was considered a form of recreation; “ether frolics”, or “laughing parties” were popular, and several scientists, doctors and dentists noticed that people in such an affected state didn’t feel any pain, even when they injured themselves in the process.  Crawford Long, William Morton, Charles Jackson and Horace Wells observed such events (and probably took part in them too), and they began using the compounds during their dental and medical procedures.

X-Rays

Who: Wilhelm Röntgen, German physicist

When: 1895

Why: In a series of coincidental observations while experimenting with what Röntgen temporarily called “X-rays”, using the mathematical designation for an unknown factor, he began to discover materials that both stopped, and allowed penetration of, these rays.  At one point the material was a piece of lead, and the first radiographic image was made; but at that point he decided to continue his experiments in secret in case he was wrong; he didn’t want to risk his professional reputation on reports of skeleton photography.  Even though the term X-ray is used in English, in German they are called “Röntgenbilder”, or Röntgen-images.

LSD

Who: Dr. Albert Hofmann, Swiss Chemist, at the Sandoz Laboratories in Basel, Switzerland

When: 1938 (first synthesized); 1943 (discovered for its hallucination-inducing properties)

Why: As part of a large research project for finding useful ergot alkaloid derivatives.  Hofmann was re-synthesizing LSD-25 for a study, and took 0.25 milligrams, but became dizzy and had to stop working.  He asked his lab assistant to escort him home; they had to go by bike, and when he got home he lay down, sinking into a pleasant “intoxicated like condition” with an extremely vivid dreamlike stream of images (after an attack of paranoid anxiety that left him thinking he was going insane).  It lasted about 2 hours, and then faded. 19 April, 1943, is now known as Bicycle Day, celebrated as the birthday of LSD.

Botox

Who: Dr. Alan Scott, and Edward Schantz

When: late 1960s

Why:  Using small doses of the most acutely toxic substance known, Botulinum toxin (as one does), they applied it to treat “crossed eyes” eyelid spasms and other eye-muscle disorders; a noticeable side-effect was that wrinkles disappeared, as the muscles beneath the skin were paralyzed.  Canadian husband and wife ophthalmologist and dermatologist physicians, JD and JA Carruthers, were the first to publish a study on BTX-A for the treatment of frown lines in 1992.  The result?  Expressionless faces that become distorted and deformed with time, thanks to Botox addiction. I think the inventors of this “treatment” should be locked away in padded cells, personally.

Smallpox Vaccination

Who: Edward Jenner, a British scientist and surgeon

When: 1796

Why:  Jenner had a brainstorm that ultimately led to the development of the first vaccine: A young milkmaid had told him how people who contracted cowpox, a harmless disease easily picked up during contact with cows, never got smallpox, a deadly scourge.  With this in mind Jenner took samples from the open cowpox sores on the hands of a young dairymaid named Sarah Nelmes and inoculated eight-year-old James Phipps with the secretion he had extracted from Nelmes’ sores.  The boy developed a slight fever and a few sores but remained for the most part unscathed. A few months later Jenner gave the boy another injection, this one containing smallpox. James failed to develop the disease and the idea behind the modern vaccine was born.

Insulin

Who: Canadian doctor Frederick Banting and Professor John MacLeod of the University of Toronto; Nobel Prize winners of 1923.

When: 1923

Why: In 1889 two German
physicians, Joseph von Mering and Oscar Minkowski, removed the pancreas from a healthy dog in order to study the role of the pancreas in digestion. Several days after the dog’s pancreas was removed, the doctors happened to notice a swarm of flies feeding on a puddle of the dog’s urine. On testing the urine, the doctors realized that the dog was secreting sugar in its urine, a sign of diabetes. Because the dog had been healthy prior to the surgery, the doctors knew that they had created its diabetic condition by removing its pancreas and thus understood for the first time the relationship between the pancreas and diabetes.  After further testing they concluded that a healthy pancreas must secrete a substance that controls the metabolism of sugar in the body. Though other scientists attempted to identify the substance released by the pancreas, it was Banting and MacLeod who discovered that the mysterious substance was insulin.

Pap smear

Who: Dr. George Nicholas Papanicolaou

When: 1923

Why: In 1923 he was studying the vaginal fluid in women to observe cellular changes over the course of a menstrual cycle; one of his subjects just happened to have uterine cancer, and when he discovered the abnormal cells, plainly seen under the microscope, he quickly realized that doctors could administer a simple test to gather a sample of vaginal fluid and test it for early signs of uterine and other cancers.

 

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