by Rakeem Nelson
Post-it Notes. Play-Doh. Penicillin. Some of the greatest (or most fun) discoveries in science have been completely accidental. In fact, it’s estimated that up to 50 percent of all scientific discoveries happen by chance. Or, is it something else?
One of America’s favorite summertime treats came about thanks to a particularly chilly night in the San Francisco Bay area in 1905. That’s when 11-year-old Frank Epperson forgot a glass containing powdered soda mix, water and a stirring stick out on his porch overnight. The next morning, Frank stepped outside and discovered the mixture had frozen around the wooden stick. He popped it out of the cup, licked it…and summers were never the same!
In 1903, French chemist Édouard Bénédictus dropped a glass flask while reaching for something on a shelf. To his surprise, the glass cracked but didn't shatter. As it turns out, the flask hadn’t been cleaned properly and was coated with a thin film of cellulose nitrate, aka liquid plastic. A happy accident that led to the discovery of safety glass.
American chemist Dr. Spencer Silver developed a new low-tack adhesive for 3M in the 1970s. Later, his colleague Art Fry needed to mark pages in his hymnal at choir practice, and everyone’s favorite sticky notes came to be.
In 1928, Scottish researcher Alexander Fleming returned to his lab after a two week-vacation only to discover that mold from an open window had contaminated an uncovered petri dish of bacteria. Strangely enough, the mold stopped the bacteria from growing, giving the world its first antibiotic.
While on a hunting trip with his dog in 1941, Swiss electrical engineer George de Mestral noticed how burdock seeds stuck to his Irish Pointer’s fur. He simulated the miniscule hooks on the seeds and, voilà, Velcro!
In 1956, American engineer Wilson Greatbatch was at work on an oscillator that recorded heart rhythms. He installed the wrong resistor and the device gave off an electrical pulse that mimicked the human heart—a mistake that led to millions of lives saved.
In 1896, French physicist Antoine Henri Becquerel wanted to test the affect of sunlight on uranium. Due to cloudy weather, he put his experiment—uranium crystals, a metal Maltese cross and a photographic plate—in a dark drawer. When he returned to it, he discovered the uranium had emitted radiation that produced an image of the cross on the plate.
Noah McVicker originally created Play-Doh in the 1930s as a wallpaper cleaner for his family’s soap company. In 1954, nursery school teacher Kay Zufall, the sister-in-law of Noah’s nephew, started using the squishy cleaner as molding clay in her classroom. That’s how Play-Doh as we know it came into existence.
In 2009, Mas Subramanian, a professor of materials science at Oregon State University, was testing out new materials for electronics in his lab with graduate students. A concoction of yttrium, indium and manganese oxides went into the furnace. What came out was a striking blue mixture. The first new blue since cobalt was discovered in 1802. It’s called “YInMn Blue.” As Subramanian later told Fast Company about his discovery, "It was serendipity, or a happy accident, because we weren’t looking for it. Most of the science discoveries come from an unexpected place."
Charles Goodyear, a down-on-his-luck American inventor, accidentally spilled gum rubber and sulphur onto a hot stove in 1839. The mixture hardened to create a durable rubber that was resistant to both heat and cold.
In 1943, American engineer Richard James was tinkering with tension springs when he knocked one over. It kept moving, and moving—and the Slinky was born!
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