Home Weird Science Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Weird Science By Monica Gray -

Throughout history, many of the greatest scientific advancements and technological innovations have been the result of accidental discoveries. These serendipitous events have led to breakthroughs in fields as diverse as medicine, physics, and electronics, and have forever changed the way we live and understand the world around us. From the discovery of X-rays to the development of the Internet, these “accidental” discoveries have had a profound impact on society and continue to shape our lives in countless ways. In this article, we’ll take a closer look at some of the most notable accidental scientific discoveries that have changed the world as we know it.

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Plastic Was Accidentally Discovered Twice

Plastic is used in aircrafts, cars, clothes, eyewear, medical supplies, kitchenware, and more. We can’t avoid it. Which is why 1898 was a turning point in history, when a small experiment changed the entire world as we know it. The discovery, which was plastic, was put on the back burner until the 1900s. This is when it was accidentally rediscovered, again, by Belgian scientist Leo Baekeland. This time, though, the scientists saw plenty of use for the plastic. While they were conducting high-pressure experiments on ethylene, a test vessel leaked and a trace of oxygen was present, which acted as an initiator. Overnight, polyethylene formed, also known as plastic. He originally named the mixture of formaldehyde and phenol after himself, Bakelite. Later on, the name changed to plastic. We can all agree this is a lot easier to pronounce! (EDN)

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Lemelson Center

An Oscillator Sounded Like A Beating Heart

We all know the sound of our beating heart, especially when we’re around someone we like. Wilson Greatbatch was no stranger to the sound of a beating heart. When he committed a grave error during his experimentation in 1960, it led to a fascinating discovery that changed history as we know it. He was trying to build an oscillator to measure the rhythm of the heart in someone with tachycardia. By mistake, he added a resistance of one kilohm instead of ten, which made the electrical circuit produce a strange rhythm. He associated this with the beating of a heart. Pacemakers send electrical signals to the heart to correct its beat, and since their accidental discovery in 1960, have come a long way(Mayo Clinic).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Mass Moments

Vulcanized Rubber? Also An Unintentional Discovery

There’s a reason Paul Simon’s song Diamonds on the Soles of Her Shoes was a big hit! While we may not have diamonds on the soles of our shoes, we have rubber. This is why, in 1839, an accidental discovery changed the entire world. A frustrated Charles Goodyear was trying to turn rubber into something that wouldn’t melt when it was hot, or freeze when it was cold. After many failed experiments, he tried using sulfur. He was annoyed and threw it into the air. It landed on the stove. Instead of melting, like the other rubber he’d used, it turned into a leathery, heat-resistant, and waterproof substance that’s known as vulcanized rubber today. You can thank Goodyear for your hoses, hockey pucks, soles of your shoes, toys, and tires (Brittanica).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Mass Moments

Thanks To Percy Spencer, We Can Microwave Popcorn

We can thank Percy Spencer for our late-night microwave snacking. But this wasn’t always the case. In the 1940s, Spencer was working on a project related to radar. He was in the process of testing a new vacuum tube. There was a chocolate bar in his pocket, and after messing around with the tube, he noticed it melted quite rapidly. He aimed the tube at several other objects, like popcorn kernels to see what would happen, much like a powerful weapon. These items were also heated, and he concluded that this energy could fit into an application for food. Following this accidental discovery, the microwave was born. Life wouldn’t be the same without microwavable popcorn (Interesting Engineering).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
All That’s Interesting

The Most Famous Drink In The World Was Found By Mistake

Coca-Cola wasn’t found on purpose. The inventor wasn’t trying to make millions in the beverage business, in fact, John Pemberton only wanted to cure headaches. To try and create this headache cure, he used two main ingredients. This was coca leaves and cola nuts. Coca leaves are widely used in South America as relief from altitude sickness, and as a headache and stomachache remedy. When Pemberton’s assistant mixed the ingredients with carbonated water, he made an accidental Coca-Cola drink. Coke would undergo a series of changes in the following years, to the sugary, bubbly, refreshing soda we sip on in summertime today (Popular Mechanics).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Goldmark Gallery

Shatterproof Glass Wasn’t Always Shatterproof

Driving a car with regular glass would be risky and downright terrifying. So when Edouard Benedictus made an accidental discovery of shatterproof glass, it changed the world as we know it. Suddenly, something so fragile turned into something solid and reliable. You’ll find shatterproof glass in your car’s windshield. When Benedictus was experimenting with cellulose nitrate in 1903, he dropped the flask by mistake. He expected the glass to shatter, but it didn’t. Even though it broke, it still maintained its shape. Somehow, the plastic coating helped maintain the glass’ shape, and thus, safety glass was born (Interesting Engineering).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Thanks To Teflon, We Have Non-Stick Pans

Nowadays, using a regular pan to cook our eggs or fry vegetables proves frustrating. The oil never seems to do the trick and food ends up burnt and charred. That’s where non-stick pans come in. In 1938, Roy J. Plunkett made an accidental discovery while working with gases related to refrigerants, tetrafluoroethylene (TFE) gas specifically. He checked a frozen, compressed sample of tetrafluoroethylene. It spontaneously polymerized into a waxy solid that formed polytetrafluoroethylene (PTFE). He conducted some tests on it and found it was heat resistant, had low surface friction, and was immobile to corrosive acids. It was ideal for cookware, which is how the non-stick pan was born. Thanks to Plunkett, we can have fried eggs without them sticking (Teflon).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Adhesives And Sealants Industry

The Sticky Post-it Change History

Without Post-Its, our mental world would be in chaos. How often do you use post-its to organize your day-to-day life? Before 1968, people had to use regular paper. Spencer Silver was trying to find a mixture that was a more powerful adhesive than what currently existed. Instead of finding a more powerful one, he found a mixture that was both adhesive and dislodged at the same time. Spencer believed he failed, when in fact, he changed the history of paper forever. Word got around at the company he worked for, and before he knew it, the Post-It was made. Sometimes the biggest failures prove to be the best discoveries (Goethe).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Anti-Malarial Medicine Was An Accidental Find

Malaria isn’t a disease you want to get. Those mosquitoes are already annoying enough, but with an added risk of infection, they’re even scarier. Quinine is originally found in the bark of the cinchona tree. Now, it’s used as an anti-malarial compound. Humans contract malaria from mosquitoes infected with the virus. Symptoms include high fever, headaches, and body aches, and can become severe if the person doesn’t receive proper hydration. The substance originally come from native Andean people. They taught Jesuit missionaries in South America how to use it in the 1600s. But the first person to discover it was an Andean man suffering from a fever. He was lost in the jungle and swallowed a pool of water at the base of a cinchona tree. It helped lessen his fever, and though the taste was bitter, he learned a valuable treatment (Interesting Engineering).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

The Chemical In Sweet’N Low Was Also A Mistake

People around the world love their Sweet’N Low. It mimics sugar, without having any of the sugar or calories that regular sugar contains. It’s almost too good to be true! While studies show Sweet’N Low isn’t good for you and may add to the toxic load, people still dip into it. The chemical in Sweet’N Low is saccharin and was an accidental discovery made by Constantine Faglberg in 1878. He was aiming to analyze coal tar but came up with saccharin. One day, he forgot to wash his hands. He picked up a roll to eat and noticed it tasted sweet. He tasted some of the other compounds he’d created and found that combining o-sulfobenzoic acid with phosphorus chloride and ammonia was to blame. In 1884, he filed a patent, and thus, we have an artificial sugar (Total Beauty).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Ripley’s Believe It Or Not

Play-Doh Was Originally Intended For Cleaning Wallpaper

Would you ever think wallpaper cleaner would turn into something children play with around the world? In the 1950s, the use of charcoal wood and heating declined. That meant that products used to remove soot from wallpaper became obsolete. But with this downfall, American manufacturer Kutol saw potential benefits. They needed new use for their non-toxic stain remover. As it was non-toxic, a woman at the company suggested they make something that children can play with. And thus, Play-Doh was born (Museum of Play).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Query Home

We Can Thank Vaseline For Our Soft Lips

We didn’t always have Vaseline, and it wasn’t until the 1850s that an accidental discovery made it happen. Robert Chesebrough was in an oil well in Pennsylvania, investigating the surroundings. There was a rumor going around of a substance called “rod wax” that happened to gunk up their machinery. Various workers had been using this gunk to soothe the cuts and burns on their skin. To test it out, he took it home to conduct several tests. Soon enough, he developed Vaseline, also known as petroleum jelly. Conducting tests on ourselves with an unknown substance sounds risky. But I’m sure we’re all happy for this risky experiment (Interesting Engineering).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Breakfast Brother Rivalry

The breakfast of millions of people around the world would be a lot less delicious and sugary if it wasn’t for Corn Flakes. This daily breakfast was invented by Will Keith Kellogg. He accidentally left some wheat on to boil, something many of us have done to pasta time and time again. When he took it off the burner, he noticed something different. This was the moment he discovered one of the most famous cereals in the entire world. But it wasn’t without brother rivalry stress. As Will’s brother, John, tried to take credit for discovering the breakfast cereal and said the idea came to him in a dream. Will eventually decided to venture out on his own, and labeled the brand after Kellogg. Thanks, Kellogg, for gracing our breakfast tables with sugary deliciousness and helping us start our day the right way (Entrepreneur).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

The Dinosaur That Inspired Jurassic Park Was An Accidental Discovery

Are you one of those people that obsessively watched the Jurassic Park movies? Well, we’re here to tell you that the dinosaur inspiration in that movie was made by mistake. In the movie Jurassic Park, the directors portrayed a Velociraptor. While they’re real dinosaurs that lived in Asia around 75 million years ago, their portrayal in the movie was more accurately inspired by a different dinosaur, the Deinonychus, which is the Velociraptor’s cousin. The Deinonychus means “terrible claw,” and scientists made its accidental discovery in the 1930s. They were searching for Tenontosaurus, a completely different dinosaur. Then, Barnum Brown found the remains of this dinosaur, which inspired Jurassic Park. Comparatively, the Deinonychus is a pony, while the Velociraptor was a small dog (Science Focus).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Velcro Companies

Those Velcro Straps On Your Shoes Are Thanks To A Dog Walker

We always knew there was a reason humans and dogs got along so well. George de Mestral was walking his dog in the 1940s when he made an accidental discovery. It’s not every day you mistakenly make something that will change the entire world while simply walking your dog. When he got home, he examined the burdock sees stuck in his clothes. These seeds had tiny hooks that attached and stuck to his fabric. Using the same concept as the seeds, he developed the hook and loop fastener, Velcro (The Bark).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
WCSA World

The Match Was a Terrifying Discovery

A terrifying breakthrough led to the accidental discovery of the match. John Walker, an English pharmacist, had a new mixture containing antimony sulfide and potassium chlorate. He got it on the end of his mixing stick. He tried to scratch it off, and instead of getting it off, it burst into flames. That doesn’t sound like something we’d want to experience, but then again, it changed the world. We’ll let other people handle that discovery (My New Lab).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Europa Press

Strange Rays From Radioactivity Was An Accidental Discovery

One day, Henri Becquerel studied the connection between X-rays and phosphorescence in the 1890s. He wanted to try and absorb X-ray energy from the sun and did this by wrapping photographic plates in black paper and exposing it to the sun using uranium salts. The weather was overcast, so he abandoned the idea for the day. But the unexposed plates had a mark, and it was clear the uranium salts were emitting rays, and they stained the plate, despite the paper in between. And that was the birth of radioactivity(Timeline).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Centre européen d’étude du Diabète

Man’s Best Friend Helped With The Discovery Of Insulin

Thanks to our furry pet friends, millions of people with diabetes can live a normal life. Insulin was found in the 1880s. Oskar Minkowski and Joseph von Mering wanted to figure out the role of the pancreas in digestion. Using test dogs, they removed its pancreas. After some time, they noticed flies were gathering around the dog’s urine. They tested its urine and noticed it had high sugar content. Inadvertently, they’d accidentally given the dog diabetes by removing its pancreas. Later on, Sir Edward Albert Sharpey-Shafer discovered only one chemical was missing from people with diabetes and called it insulin. Then, further experimentation in the 1920s led to the extraction of insulin using a series of isolated tests by Frederick Banting and his assistant Charles Best (Diabetes).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Thought Co

Chinese Alchemists Discovered Gunpowder While Searching For Eternal Life

An elixir for eternal life sounds pretty great. In the 9th century, Chinese alchemists of the Tang Dynasty were trying to create just that. But their accidental discovery couldn’t have been farther away from their original goal. In a series of experiments, they were trying to find an elixir for eternal life. Instead, they found saltpeter, the main ingredient in gunpowder. It was combined with sulfur and charcoal. It did not lead to everlasting life but instead led to an explosive. Initially, it was used for fireworks, but beginning in 904 A.D., it was used in war. Unfortunately, they did not find a solution for eternal life, and instead found something that ends life. How ironic! (Cove Collective)

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Boston Tea Party

Tea Was Discovered Twice…

Tea was accidentally discovered, twice. Back in 2737 B.C, Chinese emperor Shen Nong allowed dried leaves from a camellia bush to steep in hot water that had accidentally been blown into his cup. Fast forward thousands of years later, in 1908, American tea merchant Thomas Sullivan sent tea samples to Europe using silk pouches. This was so they wouldn’t get mixed up during the transatlantic journey. When the tea arrived at its destination, they were accidentally put into boiling water, along with the packaging. Many more mistakes were made, until the development of the current tea bags we know and love today. We can thank these guys for our morning brew (Goethe).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

The Big Bang Theory Was Found Because Of A Buzzing Sound

How often have you heard a strange buzzing sound, only to ignore it? Astronomers Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson decided not to ignore a buzzing sound they heard while conducting experiments in space. And because of it, discovered the Big Bang Theory. This is how the Universe formed. While observing the space between galaxies, the pair noticed an annoying buzzing noise coming from their large antenna. They heard this otherworldly crackle everywhere they pointed their apparatus. What they found was cosmic microwave background, which is leftover radiation from the Big Bang. In 1978, they shared the Nobel Prize for this discovery (Bell-Labs).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

The Color Mauve

You might have seen this pretty, purple color before. It was an accidental discovery by a teenage chemistry student William Perkins. In 1856, Perkins was attempting to synthesize quinine, the medicine for malaria, from coal tar. Quinine was expensive, coal tar was cheap to source, but had many chemical potentials. Perkins managed to isolate the color and create a synthetic dye. Because of his discovery, the “purple dyestuff marked the beginning of a revolution in organic chemistry, the birth of an industry that has since given us a rainbow of colors, as well as drugs, explosives, fertilizers, plastics, and synthetics beyond measure.” That sounds like a bunch of benefits for something discovered by mistake (JSTOR Daily).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
California Institute for Telecommunications

Smart Dust For Smart Brains

Jamie Link was at the University of California when she was working on a silicon chip. The chip shattered by accident, but it wasn’t a bad thing. She and her professor discovered that the chip was still sending signals and operating as tiny sensors. The term was coin smart dust, and today plays a role in attacking and destroying tumors. It’s even gone further in development and can detect disease-causing microbes (Economic Times).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Daily Mail

X-Rays Glowed In The Dark

Wilhelm Roentgen was working on a cathode ray tube when he made an accidental discovery that would change the medical field forever. Even though the tube was covered, he saw a nearby screen glow when the room was dark. He tried to block the rays, but nothing worked. But when he held his hand in the way, he noticed he could see his bones in an image on the screen. He replaced the screen with a photographic plate, and thus, the first X-ray was born. Further studies showed the rays could pass through the soft tissue of the body, but left bones and metal visible. One of his first experiments involved his wife’s hand, with her wedding ring visible in the image (APS).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Cape Cod Times

LSD Was A Huge Mistake

Thanks to Albert Hofmann, people around the world can tap into their subconscious and dive into a realm other than reality. This is all thanks to an accidental discovery he made back in the 1930s. He was creating a chemical called Lysergic acid, in the hopes of stimulating respiration and circulation. He accidentally ingested it, and suddenly felt restless and dizzy. That night, he had strange dreams, and the next day, he decided to try more of them. While he was cycling home, he started hallucinating and had no idea what was happening to him. He said, “Everything in my field of vision wavered and was distorted as if seen in a curved mirror. I also had the sensation of being unable to move from the spot.” The first LSD trip was born (The Atlantic).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World
Kent Online

Men, You Can Thank Accidents For Viagra

Viagra was created by a team of scientists at Pfizer pharmaceutical company in the 1990s. The drug was originally developed to treat angina, a type of chest pain caused by reduced blood flow to the heart. However, during clinical trials, it was found that the drug had an unexpected side effect: it improved erectile function in men. Pfizer recognized the potential of this discovery and further developed the drug specifically for the treatment of erectile dysfunction (ED). Viagra was approved by the FDA in 1998 and quickly became a blockbuster drug, widely prescribed for men with ED. Its impact on the treatment of ED has been substantial, providing a safe and effective option for millions of men who previously had limited treatment options. (BBC).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Laughing Parties Created Anesthesia

Laughing gas parties, also known as “ether frolics,” were social gatherings in the 19th century where people inhaled ether, a volatile and flammable liquid, for its intoxicating effects. While ether was initially used for recreational purposes, it was eventually discovered to have anesthetic properties and was used as a surgical anesthetic. The use of ether as an anesthetic was first demonstrated by American dentist William Morton in 1846. Morton administered ether to a patient during a surgical procedure and showed that the patient was pain-free and unconscious during the procedure. This marked the first successful use of inhaled anesthesia in modern surgical history. (UMHS).

Accidental Scientific Discoveries That Changed the World

Penicillin Saved Countless Lives

Penicillin was discovered in 1928 by Scottish scientist Sir Alexander Fleming while he was working at St. Mary’s Hospital in London. He observed that a petri dish containing Staphylococcus bacteria that he had left on his workbench had become contaminated with mold and that the bacteria surrounding the mold had been killed while the bacteria further away were still alive. He identified the mold as belonging to the genus Penicillium and concluded that it was producing a substance that was killing the bacteria, which he named penicillin. Although Fleming published his findings in 1929, it wasn’t until the 1940s that penicillin was mass-produced and widely used in medical treatment due to the efforts of scientists Ernst Chain and Howard Florey. Penicillin’s discovery has revolutionized the field of medicine and has saved countless lives by effectively treating bacterial infections (Interesting Engineering).