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Accidental Inventions

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Serendipity is the Mother of Invention

Throughout history, some of the most important scientific discoveries happened accidentally. In fact, serendipity plays an important role in scientific experimentation, and many well-known products, pharmaceuticals, and modern machines resulted from lucky mishaps. "Chance favors the prepared mind," is an oft-quoted phrase of Louis Pasteur, who is best remembered for inventing the eponymous process of sterilizing milk: Pasteurization.

Other famous accidents include Edward Jenner's discovery of the small pox vaccine by experimenting with cowpox, which produced some immunity in local farm families. Jenner introduced the smallpox vaccine in 1896, and history credits him with saving more lives than any other person. A close second would be Sir Arthur Fleming's forgotten Petri dish with a mold that turned out to be penicillin. Fleming noticed it killed the Staphylococcus bacteria nearby, leading him to pursue the mold's value. Since its introduction in the 1940s, Penicillin and its derivatives have saved millions of lives. Another explosive discovery was Alfred Nobel's gelignite, an accidental mixture of colloidium and nitroglycerin that became dynamite. Those discoveries alone make a good case for carefully examining a failed experiment before consigning it to the dustbin, but there are many more misadventures that produced a useful, though unintended, result. .

After years of experimentation with photographic processes, Louis Jacques Mand Daguerre, the famous Frenchman considered a father of photography, perfected the Daguerreotype. He finally produced a permanent image when he placed a photographic plate from his camera obscura in his chemical closet and accidentally exposed it to mercury vapor from a broken thermometer.

It would be impractical to list all of the accidental inventions across the centuries. Scientists and inventors agree that coincidence plays a major role in many discoveries, and serendipitous is a word often applied to unexpected results. Some very important inventions of the 20th Century had capricious beginnings, and with these fortunate mishaps, the world gained some tools now taken for granted.

Take Post-It Notes, for example, that mainstay of bookmarking. Way back in 1968, 3M engineer Spencer Silver concocted a very sticky glue, but found no use for the mixture. The company deemed the sticky substance not quite sticky enough, so it sat around for several years until fellow 3M scientist Arthur Fry put it to use in his church hymnal. Annoyed by the bits of paper he used to mark his place, he remembered Silver's glue, and found it perfect -a bit on the edge held the markers in place, but didn't damage the pages. Though 3M Corporation was initially unsure of Post-It Notes, today they are as necessary in offices as paper clips and staples.

And where would many modern cooks be without Teflon? This magic substance was the brainchild of Roy J. Plunkett. While working on a new refrigerant gas at the DuPont plant in New Jersey, Plunkett managed to come up with a slick substance that became a waxy, polymer coating, perfect for lubricating machinery. Later DuPont patented the polymer, known as PTFE (polytetrafluroethylene), a substance so slippery that practically nothing sticks to it. In addition to the famous Teflon frying pan, there are a host of other useful nonstick products available from fabric protector to devices for NASA. Just don't let the pan overheat in your kitchen, because even DuPont issues warnings that if too hot, Teflon's fumes might harm a bird if the cage is nearby.

Then there's the microwave oven, ubiquitous in every kitchen for the last thirty years. Percy Spencer, a scientist at Raytheon's laboratories, who was experimenting with a vacuum tube called a "magnetron," invented it. He noticed its emissions caused a candy bar in his pocket to melt quickly, and when it popped popcorn, Spencer knew he had something. Today, most people can't envision life without one, but they've only been affordable since 1967, when Raytheon, the developer, issued a model that cost only $495. That was pricey for the day but not as bad as the earlier 750-pound model offered to the public in 1947 for $5,000.

Breakfast lovers can rejoice because Will Kellogg, Dr. John Harvey's brother, left some boiled wheat out overnight in their kitchen at the sanitarium in Battle Creek. When they returned next morning, they found it stale and dry. Rather than waste the wheat, they rolled and toasted the flakes and marketed them as Granose. They experimented with other grains, and discovered corn was also popular. Later, the Kellogg brothers had a parting of the ways when in 1906 Will formed Kellogg's to market corn flakes with sugar added. His brother John, who disapproved of sugar, refused to join the company.

On the medical front, the pacemaker, so valuable to many with heart problems, came about when Wilson Greatbatch pulled out the wrong part from his supply box. He was working on a heart monitor, but when he used the wrong resistor he noticed it emitted a perfect heartbeat sound. This happy accident led to the pacemaker, used by about three million people worldwide, according to the American Heart Association.

Not all accidental discoveries are so serious. Take Play Doh and Silly Putty, for example. Play Doh, that kindergarten staple, originated as wallpaper cleaner, but inventor Joe McVicker realized its potential as a non-toxic, reusable and cleaner version of modeling clay. In 1957, he marketed it in three colors as Play Doh and was a millionaire before he was thirty. Silly Putty was another mainstay of childhood in the 1950s, as millions of kids found they could stretch the stuff several times its length. James Wright, an engineer for General Electric, thought he would try mixing silicone oil with boric acid, which produced the rubber-like compound with nearly a quarter more rebound than an average rubber ball. First marketed as Nutty Putty, the bubble-gum texture of this plastic could copy newsprint... kids stretched it out to copy the Sunday funnies. In 1949, the name changed to Silly Putty, and, marketed in colorful little plastic eggs, became the fastest selling toy of all time, generating $6 million in sales its first year.

Of course most discovery is trial and error, as Horace Walpole wrote more than a century ago defining serendipity as "accidental sagacity," the discovery of what you're not looking for. It's no wonder science calls much of its success serendipitous.

More about this author: Molly McGuire

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