Off the Topic: Accidental Inventions that Changed the World

Accidents occur on a daily basis.  Although the world generally looks at accidents as an unfortunate experience, experts estimate that somewhere between 30 and 50 percent of all scientific discoveries are in some way accidental.  Accidents actually have played a key role in society.  It’s been said that you learn a lot more from your mistakes than your successes, and sometimes these mistakes can end up changing the world.  Below are a few accidental inventions that play a vital role in today’s society:


As one of the most famous and fortunate accidents of the 20th century, penicillin belongs at number one on this list.  If you’ve been living under a rock for the past 80 years or so, here’s how the popular story goes:

Alexander Fleming didn’t clean up his workstation before going on vacation one day in 1928. When he came back, Fleming noticed that there was a strange fungus on some of his cultures. Even stranger was that bacteria didn’t seem to thrive near those cultures.  Penicillin became the first and is still one of the most widely used antibiotics.



Talk about strange connections – 18-year-old chemist William Perkin wanted to cure malaria; instead his scientific endeavors changed the face of fashion forever and, oh yeah, helped fight cancer.  Confused? Don’t be. Here’s how it happened:

In 1856 Perkin was trying to come up with an artificial quinine. Instead of a malaria treatment, his experiments produced a thick, murky mess. But the more he looked at it, the more Perkin saw a beautiful color in his mess. Turns out he had made the first-ever synthetic dye.  His dye was far better than any dyes that came from nature; the color was brighter, more vibrant, and didn’t fade or wash out. His discovery also turned chemistry into a money-generating science, making it attractive for a whole generation of curious-minded people.

But the story is not over yet. One of the people inspired by Perkin’s work was German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich, who used Perkin’s dyes to pioneer immunology and chemotherapy.



In 1907 shellac was used as insulation in electronics. It was costing the industry a pretty penny to import shellac, which was made from Southeast Asian beetles and at home chemist Leo Hendrik. Baekeland thought he might turn a profit if he could produce a shellac alternative.  Instead his experiments yielded a moldable material that could take high temperatures without distorting.

Baekeland thought his “Bakelite” might be used for phonograph records but it was soon clear that the product had thousands of uses. Today, plastic, which was derived from Bakelite, is used for everything from telephones to iconic movie punch lines.


Vulcanized Rubber

Charles Goodyear had been waiting years for a happy accident when it finally occurred.

Goodyear spent a decade finding ways to make rubber easier to work with while being resistant to heat and cold.  Nothing was having the effect he wanted.

One day he spilled a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat charred the mixture, but didn’t ruin it. When Goodyear picked up the accident, he noticed that the mixture had hardened but was still quite usable.  At last! The breakthrough he had been waiting for!

His vulcanized rubber is used in everything from tires, to shoes, to hockey pucks.

Vulcanized Rubber Puck


There are many stories of accidentally invented food: the potato chip was born when cook George Crum (yes, really his name!) tried to silence a persnickety customer who kept sending french fries back to the kitchen for being soggy; Popsicles were invented when Frank Epperson left a drink outside in the cold overnight; and ice cream cones were invented at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis.  But no “food-vention” has had as much success as Coke.

Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton was trying to make a cure for headaches. He mixed together a bunch of ingredients — and don’t ask, because we don’t know…the recipe is still a closely guarded secret. It only took eight years of being sold in a drug store before the drink was popular enough to be sold in bottles.  And the rest, as they say, is history…



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