Most of the time great, new discovering are not heralded by someone in a white coat shouting, “Eureka!” Rather in involves that same person in a white coat swearing before they realize that the vial of chemicals they dropped into the experiment may have created something revolutionary. Sometimes these accidental discoveries get filed under failure, and sometimes they’re immediately heralded as great successes. Many of these unwanted scientific children are actually common place today, and they’re sitting in your kitchen, your closet or in your children’s toy box.
Silly Putty was discovered by accident during the second World War. Scientists were attempting to find a synthetic rubber replacement, when a vial of boric acid slipped into silicone rubber. What was created is everyone’s favorite stretchy, sticky, tacky kids toy. Vulcanized rubber, the kind used to make your tires and coolers, was discovered in a similar sort of accident where sulfur was accidentally added to the rubber and the reaction caused it to become harder and more durable while still maintaining flexibility. Even the slinky, developed for naval applications, was turned into a toy when it fell off a shelf and then walked itself down a ship’s flight of stairs.
Food is another area where accidental discoveries happen all the time. For instance, potato chips were born out of a combination of spite and malice in the year 1853. A man kept sending his potato back to the kitchen saying that it was soggy and not crunchy enough. The chef, attempting to be ironic, sliced the potato as thin as possible, fried it in grease and threw salt on it. Unfortunately the customer thought that the potato chips were the greatest thing ever, and they quickly became popular at that food spot before they exploded into the popular snack they are today.
Medicine has also seen its share of accidental discoveries. Vaccines, commonly used to prevent disease, were created because Dr. Edward Jenner happened to notice that people who worked with cows did not get small pox. Out of curiosity about this strange coincidence he eventually realized that the immune system could be boosted if exposed to a small, harmless version of a disease so that when the real thing showed up the patient could fight it off.
Many products that we use today, from Teflon (considered a failure because the goal of the experiments was to find a coating that would stick, not one that wouldn’t) to Post-It Notes (also considered a failure because the goal was to create a stronger glue, not a weaker one) were accidental discoveries. Often times you just need to switch your focus and ask yourself, “If this thing won’t do what I set out to accomplish… then what CAN it do?”
“Invention Through Accident,” by Anonymous at ASU
“9 Things Invented or Discovered Through Accident,” by Anonymous at How Stuff Works