Necessity is often said to be the mother of invention, but good luck and sheer laziness are certainly a close aunt and uncle. Some of the most influential inventions ever created came to their inventors by accidental mishap or sheer dumb luck.
Whether saving uncountable lives daily, creating faster cars, or solving the quest for the perfect baked potato; these inventors revolutionised the world by suffering potentially embarrassing laboratory mishaps.
The first usable antibiotic owes its existence to the extreme laziness or forgetfulness of its inventor, Sir Alexander Fleming.
Over 90 years ago, in 1928, the young scientist left for a two-week vacation before even making a start on the washing up. Fleming was growing samples of the influenza virus in Petri dishes around his lab at the time, a particularly nasty piece of washing to skip out on.
Returning from vacation, Fleming found a white “furry” mould growing amongst the unwashed culture plates. A stroke of good fortune for humanity, he noted the growing mould was preventing the spread of bacteria across the dish.
Fleming published the results of his procrastination in 1929, detailing his findings and unwittingly revolutionising medical practice. Penicillin became the first and most widely used antibiotic in the world.
Sometimes the thing you find isn’t what you were looking for, but turns out to be far better instead. This was the case for Percy Spencer, a bright young engineer at Raytheon Manufacturing in the 1920s.
Spencer worked on modifying magnetrons for radar sets, which the company sold. While tinkering, Spencer discovered a peanut bar he kept in his pocket had almost completely melted inside its wrapper. Curious about the discovery, the inventor moved on to place first eggs and then popping corn under the unit to test its effects. Tasting success and the world’s first batch of instant popcorn, the microwave oven was born.
It would be decades before commercial units were small enough and affordable enough to reach widespread popularity. By the 1960s the microwave made its way into kitchens worldwide. Today there’s rarely a home, college dorm, or office that doesn’t have one available for quick snacks and reheated leftovers.
Rubber, as we know it today, is an exceptionally useful material. Bendable, grippy, and strong. It is, well, rubbery. Though it wasn’t always that way. In the 1830s natural rubber was an interesting curiosity, but not much else. It was brittle when cold and practically a sticky, smelly goo when warm.
Inventor Charles Goodyear spent years attempting to turn natural rubber into a useful and usable product. Experiment after experiment failed to yield results while the inventor built up more and more debt.
Goodyear dropped vials of sulphur into his latest failed experiment while it cooked on a hot stove. Whether accidental or deliberate, the experiment proved to be the making of the tyre industry. The resulting product was weatherproof, pliable, and an exceptionally useful material.
The process Goodyear had stumbled upon came to be known as vulcanisation. The inventor sadly never did profit from his breakthrough. He never had the resources or money to enforce the patent for his world-changing invention or recover from the immense debt he had accrued.
The Goodyear Tyre and Rubber Company was named, years later, in his honour.
Many of us remember the bad old days of cathode-ray tube (CRT) computer monitors. 1990’s eras computers whirred along to a backing track of pops and pings and glowed to the gentle burn of the heavyweight giants. One hundred years earlier the humble CRT was just as important in the development of x-rays.
An inventor by the name of Wilhelm Conrad Roentgen was experimenting with CRTs in his lab when he noticed that crystals around the device produced a fluorescent glow when power was applied. Shielding the device with paper and card, he took note that the new-found rays could pass straight through and illuminate the crystals from the other side.
Roentgen produced the worlds very first bone x-ray when he enlisted his, presumably very understanding, wife to place her hand between the CRT and photographic film. Of course, nothing was then known about the carcinogenic properties of x-rays or the damage that overexposure would cause.
Roentgen’s accidental observation brought an indispensable new tool to the medical world and one which we readily take for granted today.