EVERY DAY WE USE PRODUCTS LIKE microwaves, delicious potato chips, X-rays, life-saving drug penicillin, bulletproof fibre, glue, post-it notes, world wide web, little blue pill to make our lives easier.
What do each of these ingenious inventions that are an integral part of our life, one that allows us to live our life hassle-free have in common?
They were not the product of trial and error or created according to plan, but were all accidental inventions.
Yes, you ought to thank serendipity for all these fabulous discoveries. I am sure you have heard necessity is the mother of invention. It’s True but sometimes. There is a very thin line between an amazing invention and innovation and absolute failure. Some of history’s most popular life-changing inventions have come from those aiming for one thing and discovering another.
Herein, I take you through some of the most life-changing products born out of some of the most shocking, wonderful, serendipitous moments that were accidental inventions.
I take you through the journey that changed the course of history and offer insight into how some huge mistakes and failures can lead to spectacular products, life-saving treatments, and Nobel Prizes.
I promise you are going to love it and when you’re done reading, you’ll never look at them the same way again.
You know how this machine works. You put the food item on a safe plate, pop it into a machine with dull halogen light, hit few buttons here and there, the plate-like magic starts to spin, heats the item, and when it’s warm and ready to eat the process terminates in a beep. All this in a few seconds or minutes rather than hours that stoves and ovens would take.
WHAT AM I TALKING ABOUT? Any Guess: The microwave oven, of course.
In 90% of American homes, there is a microwave in their kitchen, and the sight, sound, and smell are known to many of us too. But do you know this device that can, reheat leftovers, boil water, defrost frozen foods, heat your fluffy popcorn in a jiffy was invented utterly by accident more than 75 years ago?
After World War I, Percy Spencer an American started working for Raytheon manufacturing company. During World War II, he was working on a project to improve radar technology for Allied forces. He was trying to improve the power of radar magnetrons. A radar magnetron is a vacuum tube that creates vibrating electromagnetic waves called microwaves. While testing was on, he felt hungry and put his hand in his pocket to fetch a chocolate bar. But to his utter surprise, the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted and had become a sticky mess.
Not sure what and why happened, he decided to run another experiment. He put an egg under the tube and lo behold the egg exploded covering his entire face in the egg. The very next day he brought in some corn kernels popped them and proudly shared them with his office colleagues. Thus, a Microwave oven was born.
Carrying a chocolate bar for snacking turned out to be a boon and good for science.
Before its introduction in the 1940’s, there was no effective treatment for infections like pneumonia or rheumatic fever. Even a paper cut or scratch could lead to severe bacterial infection, blood poisoning, or even death. There was nothing that doctors could do except hope and pray.
The discovery of penicillin in 1928 began the era of antibiotics and is now the most widely used antibiotic in the world. It has been recognized as one of the greatest inventions in therapeutic medicine, a tool in the hands of doctors to cure deadly infectious diseases.
But the man who discovered it- Alexander Fleming- never desired to revolutionize medical science. In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming a Scottish biologist and researcher was experimenting with the influenza virus in his lab at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. In his lab, he was investigating the properties of staphylococci.
Taking a break from his work he went on a two-week-long vacation. Before leaving for his vacation, he inoculated staphylococci on culture plates and out of carelessness left them on a bench in a corner of his lab. Upon his return on Sept 3, 1928, he noticed that one culture plate was contaminated with a strange fungus, one which had killed off all surrounding bacteria in the dish.
Upon close examination of the mold, he identified it as being from the genus Penicillin notatum and hence named it Penicillium.
MODERN MEDICINE WAS NEVER THE SAME AGAIN thanks to this accidental discovery.
During World War I, the death rate from bacterial infections was a staggering 18%, but thanks to Penicillin, it fell to less than 1% in World War II.
Continuing with the medical world, few scientific discoveries have had as strong an impact as X- rays. In today’s world X-ray, is taken for granted as doctors suggest it to diagnose all sorts of problems: Pneumonia, broken bone heart conditions, and more. But do you know not so long ago these very ailments could not be diagnosed without cutting a person open? This all changed courtesy of Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen.
Wilhelm Rontgen a professor of physics in Germany, discovered X-Rays in 1895- again accidentally while he was experimenting with Crooke’s tube. While testing whether cathode rays could pass through glass. He had covered the Crooke’s tubes with black paper and was thus surprised when he noticed a faint green light projecting onto a nearby screen about 1 meter away.
Intrigued by the phenomenon he experimented with other materials and substances and observed the same effect. Since he did not know what the rays were, he obviously called them “X,” rays meaning unknown rays. Wilhelm on further experimentation found that X-rays can pass through human tissue too allowing once invisible visible. This accidental discovery was a sensation and spread worldwide and doctors worldwide were extensively using X-rays to locate fractures, stones, and gunshots. X-rays revolutionized physics and medicine and became an integral part of the medical world.
He received the 1901 Nobel Prize for his work in Physics.
I have very vivid memories of my childhood and especially of traditional breakfast menu items like the evergreen poha, the spongy Upma, the stuffy aloo paratha, and the all-famous puffy Idli. This was the time when the entire family would relish a hearty meal together. They are still very much alive, but then came Cornflakes, which literally changed the entire concept of traditional breakfast and soon became a preferred choice for the first meal of the day. And very soon some interesting additions like fruits, masala, honey, and nuts made it more acceptable and palatable and in competition with them.
As you read this article many people around the world have indulged or are indulging in their bowl of Corn Flakes chowing down on healthy and delicious spoonfuls. It may seem like a perfectly wholesome and healthy breakfast choice, but do you know that they have a rather bizarre and weird origin story.
Dr. John Harvey Kellogg was an American doctor, nutritionist, and health activist. In fact, he was one of America’s first wellness gurus. He was a Seventh-day Adventist serving as a director of a world-famous health resort in Battle Creek, Michigan. This sanitarium served as a hospital, a medical spa, a high-class hotel, and a hydrotherapy institution. Dr. Kellogg treated both the wealthy and the poor.
Dr. Kellogg was on the lookout for a need to create a palatable, grain-based breakfast food that was easy to digest. In the late 19th century Indigestion was a common health problem in American’s.
AS THE STORY GOES, it was one night when Dr. John Kellogg and his brother, Will Keith Kellogg accidentally have left a batch of some cooked wheat dough for some period of time. On their return, they found that wheat had gone stale due to fermentation. Well, some budget constraints forced them to process it further by making it into thin long sheets by passing through the rollers. To their surprise, the fermented dough produced large flakes that became crispy and crunchy when toasted in the oven. When they served to their patients, they just loved the new cereal flakes.
THEY CALLED IT GRANOSE. The Kellogg brothers kept experimenting with the recipe till the time they found out that corn, rather than wheat, produced even better flakes. Will Kellogg sensing the opportunity applied for a patent and decided to market the flakes to ordinary American’s who were looking for a light and healthy breakfast.
Agreed most innovations are crafted and created through vigorous testing and experimentations, but many are a result of pure happenstance and innocent mistakes.
So, mistakes and failures are nothing to be ashamed of. Who knows, what you see today as an error can tomorrow change the entire world by creating something that we just can’t live without. Be like that experimenter’s who with the right mindset and approach were able to turn mishaps into the next great innovation.
Let me know your thoughts on happenstance. Any experience that you would like to share, please do it in the comments section below.