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:


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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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