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Penicillin Microwave x Rays Rubber Viagra Plastic



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We have a lot to thank scientists for in the 19th century because most of the accidental discoveries occurred during that time. These days we take plastic and rubber for granted, for example, and, to a great extent, we expect that if we have an infection some form of penicillin will be there to cure it. We could not do without any of those items in our lives (for a start, the car or the bus wouldn't run!). Yet those very useful and common products were discovered accidentally and are essential items on any list of very important scientific discoveries.

My top 7 list of the most important accidental discoveries are chosen for the impact they have had on our world. They are no longer just important, but quite indispensable.


1. Pennicillin

Often called the 'wonder drug' or the 'miracle drug', penicillin has had a huge impact on the treatment of infections. Many wounds, and simple diseases, are treated so effortlessly now, and within a matter of days, but before the discovery of the drug, people used to die from these simple ailments because they had nothing to combat them. Discovered in 1928 by Sir Alexander Fleming (Britain), when he was working on which diseases was caused by bacteria, some contamination from the air appeared to 'ruin' one of the cultured colonies of bacteria and a mold grew over it. He was not very happy to see this. However, later on he noticed that all the bacteria underneath the mold had been killed by the antibacterial substance the mold produced and penicillin was born.


2. X-Rays

The ability to see what is happening inside the human body is such an essential tool in medicine, especially when limbs are broken or cancerous growths need to be isolated but it was accidentally discovered by William Roentgen (Germany) in 1895. He was working with cathode rays to see if they would pass through a thin window in a discharge tube which would then cause any materials near to the tube to go bright flourescent in colour. To his surprise, some crystals of barium-platinum-cyanide he had left elsewhere in the workshop had became flourescent too, from his earlier experiment. He realised that it had to be different rays that had reached those crystals because they were too far away for the cathode rays to affect them, and he called them x-rays. In fact, he was so excited by these new rays, and committed to what he was doing, that he began experimenting with them using his own left hand which was destroyed by the ex-rays in the end.


3. Plastic

What would we do without plastic? We use it for for everything, especially when we wish to protect an item or to carry our shopping. At the turn of the 20th century the synthetic material 'shellac' was used as insulation in electronics but, as it was imported from Asia (made from beetles), it grew more and more costly to produce. Leo Hendrik Baekeland (Belgium), who was described as an "inventive and entrepreneurial genius", saw an eye to the main chance and decided to create something to rival shellac to make himself some money. However, his experiments came up with something much more malleable and durable which he he called 'Bakelite'. He thought it would be used for making phonograph records until Eastman Kodak company bought his invention for $750,000 (an enormous amount of money in those days), and plastic gradually became the ubiquitous material we use today.


4. Vulcanised Rubber

This accidental discovery came into being when a mixture of India rubber and sulphur came into contact with a hot stove. At that time (19th century) rubber was pretty useless on a practical level because it became too sticky when it was hot, and too stiff and brittle when it was cold. Charles Goodyear (USA), who had been trying for over seven years to make rubber useful, experienced that lucky incident in 1839. He had brushed some of rubber powder and some sulphur off his hands, which fell onto the stove. the rubber melted but then reacted to the sulphur to form a kind of 'chewing gum' which he stuck on a wall overnight for it to cool. He realised next morning that it was pretty flexible to the touch. He had inadvertently got the 'vulcanised' rubber we use so much today.


5. Radioactivity

Henri Becquerel (France) was rather intrigued by Roentgen's discovery of x-rays, wondering whether normal light rays could be formed into deeply penetrating radiations, just as the cathode rays had done. He had placed a crystal of phosphorescent material on a photographic plate that would fluoresce when exposed to light. He needed the sun's rays to test his theory, but, frustratingly, it did not shine for nearly a week. During that time, he put away the crystal he was going to use on a package of photographic plates which were hidden from the light. When he eventually developed the plates he was surprised to see that a silhouette of the crystal appeared on them. With the help of Marie Curie, they discovered that the unknown radiation had been caused by radium which was unknowingly present in the uranium crystal and radioactivity came into being.


6. Microwave Oven

This amazingly useful gadget was the by-product of another bit of technology. Dr Spencer Tracy (USA) was checking a new vacuum tube called a magnetron when he discovered that the candy bar in his pocket had melted. He was so intrigued by that, he placed some popcorn kernels near the tube and watched as 'the popcorn sputtered, cracked and popped all over his lab". Further tests followed with the magnetron tube, especially with an egg yolk which splattered ll over his face! The truth gradually dawned that all the food had been exposed to low density microwave energy. The Raytheon Corporation he worked for produced the first commercial microwave oven in 1954, nine years after it was discovered.


7. Viagra

We can thank a little village in Wales (Merthr Tydfil), Britain, for accidentally discovering the interesting side effects of a new drug, Sildenafil, which was being tested in 1992 to combat the heart condition, angina. Soon the men involved noticed that it wasn't just their heart that was perking up with renewed regularity! It seems that heart medicine also increased blood flow to the penis, allowing men to reverse erectile dysfunctions. Drug company Pfizer immediately stopped the research for the heart and instituted one for impotence instead. Peter Dunn and Albert Wood (Britain), both employees of Pfizer) are credited with the amazing drug which went on public release in 1998. Since then, it has taken over the Internet in its bid to appeal directly, and globally, to many grateful older men!


http://lifestyle.iloveindia.com/lounge/what-is-viagra-556.html

http://www.wired.com/wired/archive/14.03/start.html?pg=3

http://science.discovery.com/brink/top-ten/


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