7 Accidental Scientific Discoveries and Inventions that Changed the World

1. Matches

Before our modern day friction matches existed, obtaining fire was no easy task. Chemical mixes that could explode into fires did exist- but there was no known way to transfer these fires onto a slow burning material like wood. In 1826, English chemist John Walker was preparing a chemical lighting mix when a stick dipped in the mix caught fire by accidental friction which lead to the invention of match sticks!

2. Plastic

Before the invention of plastic, there were only a few substances that could be molded, like clay or glass. But in 1909, a chemist named Leo Baekeland synthesized Bakelite, which is the first truly synthetic polymer. He originally created it as a replacement for shellac, a resin. Rather than a shellac-like material, Bakelite turned out to be a polymer that was uniquely mold-able, durable, non-conductive and heat-resistant. This accidental invention of Bakelite led to a whole class of plastics with similar properties- which are now used for almost everything!

4. Penicillin

Possibly the most famous accidental discovery of all time, Sir Alexander Fleming discovered penicillin while he was experimenting with the influenza virus in 1928. During this time he noticed that a strange mold had started to grow on his petri dishes of Staphylococcus bacteria colonies. While looking for a way to save whatever colonies he could from the mold, he noticed that bacteria was unable to grow anywhere near the mold.  This mold actually turned out to be a rare strain of Penicillin notatum and this discovery changed medicine forever!

5. X-rays

Wilhelm Conrad Rontgen discovered X-rays in 1895, but it was on accident. Rontgen was originally experimenting with cathode-ray tubes in an attempt to create light bulbs. But he noticed that even when placed inside a cardboard box, the cathode tubes continued to emit light. Soon, he discovered that the tube was sending out more than light — it was passing invisible rays that could penetrate solid matter like paper, wood and even skin!

Rontgen took the first medical X-ray done on a human and it was done on his wife’s hand.

6. Vaseline

In 1859, 22-year-old chemist Robert Chesebrough was investigating an oil well in Pennsylvania when he came across complains from oil rig workers about an annoying jelly-like substance “rod wax” that got into their drilling machines and caused them to malfunction. But he also found that the workers used “rod wax” to soothe cuts and burns on their skin. Chesebrough called it Vaseline, a petroleum jelly that is used by us even today.

7. Microwave Oven

The microwave oven was invented in 1945, when a Raytheon company engineer by the name of Percy Spencer was fiddling with energy sources for radar equipment. While testing a new vacuum tube he noticed how a chocolate bar in his pocket melted more quickly than it should. This led him to experiment by aiming the tube at other items, like eggs and popcorn kernels. A few years later he invented the first microwave oven.

Here’s a Bonus invention for you:

Kevlar: Bullet Proof Vests

In 1965, chemist Stephanie Kwolek made an unexpected discovery that would lead to the creation of a material so strong that even steel bullets could not penetrate them.

Kwolek’s work involved finding synthetic fibers that could withstand extreme conditions. While working to create such fibers she unexpectedly discovered that under certain conditions large numbers of poly-amide molecules line up parallel to form cloudy liquid crystalline solutions. This discovery was something that most researchers would have rejected because the solution was fluid and cloudy instead of viscous and clear. But Kwolek decided to take a chance and spun the solution into fibers. This lead to the creation of fibers like Kevlar. Kevlar is a type of plastic with very high tensile strength and is heat-resistant. It is five times stronger than steel, and at the same time lighter than fiberglass.

Today Kevlar protects and saves thousands of lives and is used in hundreds of products, including bulletproof vests, spacecrafts, helmets protective gloves and tires.

Which accidental invention is your favorite?