7 Accidental Change-Makers

If it weren’t for accidents, some change-makers wouldn’t have come up with inventions we take for granted. Consider:

Charles Goodyear had been working on creating synthetic rubber for years when he accidentally let fly a sticky fistful of gum that landed on a hot potbellied stove. Voilà! “He had made weatherproof rubber,” Goodyear.com says of the charred leatherlike substance scraped from the stove.

Percy Spencer in 1945 felt an odd sensation as a chocolate bar in his pocket began melting—just as he stood in front of a radio wave-emitting magnetron. Intrigued, the radar researcher at Raytheon Co. “sent out for popcorn kernels—and they began to pop,” states Raytheon.com. You guessed it—he and Raytheon developed the microwave oven.

In his article headlined “How I Discovered Viagra for Cosmos magazine, Ian Osterloh started off by saying, “I was as surprised as anyone when my research on a potential treatment for heart disease revealed a side effect that sparked a sexual health revolution.”

If it weren’t for the annoying prickly burrs covering his dog and clothes after a hunting trip in the 1940s, George de Mestral wouldn’t have examined a dang-blasted burr under a microscope and noticed how its “hooks” can grab fur “loops”—his inspiration to invent Velcro.

Roy Plunkett could’ve written it off as a mistake when in 1938, while trying to create a new form of the refrigerant Freon, he opened a gas container and saw his gas was gone. It solidified into a waxy, slippery, heat-resistant resin that he tested and saw as promising. We know it as Teflon.

John Walker was said to be merely trying to scrape chemicals off the end of a mixing stick in 1826 when a flame erupted—sparking (so to speak) his new product of “friction lights,” or matches.

If Constantin Fahlberg hadn’t spilled coal-tar derivative compound on his hands and failed to wash thoroughly, he wouldn’t have noticed an unexpected sweet taste while later eating a dinner roll. In 1878 the chemist hurried from home to the lab to figure out what the sweet substance was, thus discovering the first sugar substitute: saccharin.

Not all change-makers own up to the role played by happenstance, though. Goodyear denied his discovery was an accident. According to Goodyear.com, “Like Newton’s falling apple, he maintained, the hot stove incident held meaning only for the man ‘whose mind was prepared to draw an inference.’”


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