Photo: Flickr/Steven Snodgrass
Most inventors strive for weeks, months, or years to perfect their products. (Thomas Edison tried thousands of different light bulb filaments before arriving at the ideal mixture of tungsten.)But sometimes, brilliance strikes by accident.
Here’s a salute to the scientists, chefs, and everyday folk who stumbled upon greatness—and, more important, shared their mistakes with the world.
Let’s roll through the 15 best accidental inventions.
The first potato chips were meant as an insult.
Hotel chef George Crum enjoyed a wonderful knack for cooking. From his kitchen at Moon's Lake House near Saratoga Springs, N.Y., Mr. Crum could 'take anything edible and transform it into a dish fit for a king.' That skill came in handy--the upscale Lake House attracted customers who were used to being treated like kings.
In 1853, a cranky guest complained about Crum's fried potatoes. They were too thick, he said. Too soggy and bland. The patron demanded a new batch.
Crum did not take this well. He decided to play a trick on the diner. The chef sliced a potato paper-thin, fried it until a fork could shatter the thing, and then purposefully over-salted his new creation. The persnickety guest will hate this, he thought. But the plan backfired. The guy loved it! He ordered a second serving.
Word of this new snack spread quickly. 'Saratoga Chips' became a hit across New England, and Crum went on to open his own restaurant. Today, that accidental invention has ballooned into a massive snack industry.
In the late 1800s, the world became a seemingly magical place. Scientists discovered radiation, radio waves, and other invisible forces of nature. For a while there, many serious researchers joined seances and believed in ghosts. Science had discovered so many mysterious phenomena -- things that the eye could not see but were definitely there -- that many people wondered, what else might be out there?
German physicist Wilhelm Röntgen discovered one of these invisible powers by accident.
Röntgen experimented with cathode-ray tubes, basically glass tubes with the air sucked out and a special gas pumped in. They work kinda like modern-day fluorescent light bulbs. When Röntgen ran electricity through the gas, the tube would glow. But something strange happened after he surrounded the tube with black cardboard. When he turned on the machine, a chemical a few feet away started to glow. The cardboard should have prevented any light from escaping, so what caused this distant glow?
Little did he know that the cathode-ray tube had been sending out more than just light. It shot out invisible rays that could pass right through paper, wood, and even skin. The lab chemical that lit up -- the one that tipped off Röntgen -- reacted to these rays. He called the phenomenon X-rays. The X stood for 'unknown.'
Röntgen went on to capture the first X-ray images, including a shot of his wife's hand (pictured, above). Upon seeing this skeletal image, she exclaimed, 'I have seen my own death!'
Saccharin came as a sweet surprise--and a scary one.
Before Sweet'N Low and diet sodas, there was a plucky researcher studying something completely different: coal tar.
In the 1870s, Russian chemist Constantin Fahlberg worked in the lab of Ira Remsen at Johns Hopkins University. Remsen's team experimented with coal-tar derivates, seeing how they react to phosphorus, chloride, ammonia, and other chemicals. (Not exactly the most appetizing profession.)
One night, Fahlberg returned home and started to chow down on dinner rolls. Something was off. The rolls tasted curiously sweet. The recipe hadn't changed, so what was going on here? He soon realised that it wasn't the rolls. It was him. His hands were covered with a mystery chemical that made everything sweet.
'Fahlberg had literally brought his work home with him, having spilled an experimental compound over his hands earlier that day,' writes the Chemical Heritage Foundation in its history of saccharin. 'He ran back to Remsen's laboratory, where he tasted everything on his worktable--all the vials, beakers, and dishes he used for his experiments. Finally he found the source: an overboiled beaker.'
Fahlberg had actually created saccharin before, but since he never bothered to taste-test his concoctions, the chemist had no idea. In fact, a modern chemist probably would have never discovered saccharin. Nowadays, people thoroughly wash their hands before leaving the lab. If Fahlberg had followed the normal rules of cleanliness, the world would be without this zero-calorie artificial sweetener.
Roy Plunkett invented Teflon while trying to make a better refrigerator.
When the DuPont chemist was only 27 years old, he had a big idea. Plunkett wanted to combine a specific gas with hydrochloric acid. He gathered the desired gas (tetrafluoroethylene) but wasn't quite ready to start experimenting. So he cooled and pressurised the gas in canisters overnight. But when he returned the next day, the gas was gone. The canisters weighed the same amount as when they were full, but nothing came out. Where did all the gas go?
Confused, Plunkett cut the canisters in half. The gas had solidified on the sides, creating a slick surface.
'Rather than discard the apparent mistake, Plunkett and his assistant tested the new polymer and found that it had some very unusual properties: it was extremely slippery as well as inert to virtually all chemicals, including highly corrosive acids,' writes DuPont in its corporate history. 'The product, trademarked as Teflon in 1945, was first used by the military in artillery shell fuses and in the production of nuclear material for the Manhattan Project.'
While Plunkett invented Teflon, he didn't come up with the idea of using it for cooking. About a decade after Plunkett sawed those canisters in half, a French engineer named Marc Grégoire introduced 'Tefal' pans, the first to be lined in Teflon. The idea came from his wife. Before Tefal, Grégoire used Teflon on his fishing tackle to prevent tangling. But his wife realised that the nonstick surface would be perfect for cookware.
Chemist William Perkin wanted to cure malaria. Instead, he started a new movement in the fashion industry.
In 1856, Perkin was an 18-year-old student at the Royal College of London. He attempted to create artificial quinine, an anti-malaria drug derived from tree bark. He was unsuccessful. However, his curiosity spiked when his failures resulted in a thick, purple sludge.
The colour caught his eye. The sludge, made with a carbon-rich tar from distilled coal, took on a unique shade of purple, a very popular colour in the fashion world at the time. Perkin was able to isolate the compound producing the colour, which he named 'mauve.' Perkin had created the first-ever synthetic dye.
Perkin dropped out of school and his father, George, used his entire life savings to build a factory that produced mauve-coloured items. Within a few years, the family became extremely wealthy.
Perkin's dye was quite vibrant and didn't fade or wash out, but that's not the only good thing that came from Perkin's new colour. Mauve helped kick-start a chemistry revolution. Experiments from other labs soon resulted in thousands of useful carbon compounds, such as an actual artificial quinine.
Eastman Kodak research Harry Coover discovered Superglue years before he figured out what to do with it. At first, its stickiness infuriated him.
Coover first came across cyanoacrylates (the chemical name for these überadhesives) in World War II. His team tried to use the material to create plastic gunsights. Too bad the cyanoacrylates kept sticking to everything. Coover dismissed the chemical and tried different approaches.
He came across the material again in 1951. This time, Kodak experimented with cyanoacrylates for heat-resistant jet aeroplane canopies. Again, the stickiness got in the way. But then Coover had an epiphany.
'Coover realised these sticky adhesives had unique properties in that they required no heat or pressure to bond,' writes the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) in a column from 2004. 'He and his team tried the substance on various items in the lab and each time, the items became permanently bonded together. Coover -- and his employer -- knew they were on to something.'
While Coover's original patent called the new invention 'Superglue,' Kodak sold the adhesive under the less-evocative name 'Eastman 910.' 'Later it became known as Super Glue, and Coover became somewhat of a celebrity, appearing on television in the show 'I've Got a Secret,' where he lifted the host, Garry Moore, off the ground using a single drop of the substance,' writes MIT.
If your favourite cookie is chocolate chip, then you should praise Ruth Graves Wakefield for her mistakes in the kitchen.
Wakefield and her husband, Kenneth, owned Toll House Inn in Whitman, Mass. Wakefield prepared the recipes and cooked for the inn's guests.
One day in 1930, Wakefield had a problem. She was out of baker's chocolate for her scrumptious Butter Drop Do cookies. Surely, her guests would be upset. Wakefield had to quickly come up with a chocolate substitute and broke up a bar of Nestle's semisweet chocolate into tiny chunks and mixed them into the batter. She assumed that the chocolate would melt, spread into the dough as it baked, and create a chocolate-flavored cookie.
That, of course, didn't happen. When Wakefield took the cookies out of the oven, she noticed that the chocolate chunks only melted slightly, holding their shape and forming a creamy texture. The guests loved them.
Wakefield's chocolate chip cookies began attracting people from all over New England. After her recipe appeared in a Boston newspaper, Nestle gained a huge spike in sales. Everyone wanted Nestle's semisweet chocolate bars to make Wakefield's cookies.
And so a marketing deal was struck. Andrew Nestle agreed to give Wakefield a lifetime supply of the chocolate in return for her recipe printed on every Nestle semisweet chocolate bar.
It started out more than five feet tall, weighed 750 pounds, and cost about $5,000. The first microwave, the Radarange, built by Raytheon Corporation in 1947, was based on the accidental discovery of a melted chocolate bar.
Several years prior to Raytheon's first attempt at the microwave oven, a scientist, Percy Spencer, experimented with a new magnetron, a vacuum tube that releases energy to power radar equipment.
Radar was vital during World War II. It allowed for easier detection of enemy planes and ships, especially German U-Boats. Raytheon scientists looked for new ways to improve the magnetron and increase productivity during a time of great need.
Cooking a TV dinner was not on their to-do lists. It was only by chance -- and after the war had ended -- that one scientist finally noticed one of the magnetron's other possible uses.
While working with the device, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket started melting. He attributed it to the microwaves and, like any good scientist, conducted more tests.
First, Spencer tried corn kernels. After they successfully popped, Spencer tried heating more foods. The results led engineers to attempt to contain the microwaves in a safe enclosure, the microwave oven.
The countertop microwave oven that's in almost all American kitchens today was first introduced to the public in 1967 by the Amana Corporation (acquired by Raytheon in 1965).
Business Insider Emails & Alerts
Site highlights each day to your inbox.