Normally, inventors set out with a plan for what they want to create. Most will see a problem that needs solving and come up with a solution. However, many inventions that we now think of as brilliant and indispensable actually came about by pure chance. Find out which are the best inventions created by mistake.
American Harry Coover, a scientist at Cornell University in the United States, was researching new compounds to improve military gun sights with his team from Kodak in 1942 when he discovered cyanoacrylate, the scientific name for Super Glue. At first, the glue was criticised because it had ruined the machinery used for the research. However, in 1958 it was eventually marketed by Kodak as Super Glue.
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American chemist Roy Plunkett was conducting experiments with gases for DuPont when he noticed a tetrafluoroethylene gas cylinder was not working. After further investigation, he found this type of gas had solidified into a group of white particles. After studying the powder, Plunkett established that this new substance could function as a lubricant at very high temperatures. At first, it was used exclusively for military purposes but it was later used to coat cooking utensils.
Coca-Cola is the world's most popular soft drink. However, its inventor John Pemberton had actually hoped to create a medicinal remedy. As a colonel in the Confederate Navy, Pemberton had been wounded in battle during the American Civil War. Like so many wounded soldiers at that time he became addicted to morphine as a means of easing his pain. One day in 1886, while experimenting with coca leaves and nut seeds he came up with a non-alcoholic version of a coca wine. He then perfected the formula by adding syrup and carbonated water, creating what we know today as Coca-Cola.
The microwave oven
In 1945, the US Navy engineer Percy Spencer invented the microwave oven by chance. Spencer had actually been testing new ways to emit electromagnetic waves when a chocolate bar in his pocket suddenly melted. Intrigued by the event he began to conduct experiments with other foods such as eggs and corn. Following more successful tests, he eventually patented the invention. However, the first microwave oven that was placed on the market was a very big and cost US$ 5,000. Consumers had to wait until 1967 for a smaller and more reasonably priced version to come on the market.
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In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen began experimenting with cathode rays. Upon placing a fluorescent plate on the other side of the room, he noticed that it glowed and that this even occurred when a thick screen was placed between it and the equipment emitting the rays. The first image projected by the device showed the bones within his wife’s hand.
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Play-Doh was originally created by Noah McVicker at the cleaning products firm Kutol in the 1930s. The company had been looking for substances to remove coal soot from the wallpaper of houses. However, with the decline of coal fires in the 1950s, it seemed the clay would become obsolete. It was then that the wife of McVicker’s nephew Joseph began using the clay to make model figures at the children’s nursery where she worked. Noah and Joseph began marketing the clay to schools and nurseries after further extracting toxic elements from it and adding colours.
In 1870, chemists Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg were working with a derivative of tar when they stopped their research for lunch. Fahlberg had not washed his hands and noticed that his food tasted sweeter. The artificial sweetener they had discovered was later marketed as Saccharin and demand for it grew during sugar shortages in the First World War.
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George Crum, a chef from New England in the United States, is credited by many with the invention of crisps (or potato chips as they are known in the United States) in 1853. It is said that Crum cut his french fries into really thin strips after one customer at the restaurant where he worked complained that they were too thick. The crisps, which had also been salted, proved an instant hit with other diners at the restaurant.
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Ice cream cones
Ice cream cones are said to have been invented at the Saint Louis Exposition in the United States in 1904. The story goes that an ice cream seller hit upon the idea of serving his product on top of rolled-up waffles after running out of plates at the event.
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Charles Goodyear is credited with discovering how to make vulcanized rubber in 1830. Natural rubber used at the time would crack in the cold and become sticky at warmer temperatures. One night, Goodyear accidentally dropped sulphur, lead and rubber on to a hot stove and found the mixture produced a new type of rubber that was hardened and carbonised. Goodyear died before he could perfect and patent his invention.
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Alexander Fleming, the famous Scottish pharmacist, biologist and botanist, discovered the antibiotic penicillin, which is today used to treat many diseases, by mistake in 1928. Fleming had left a Petri dish containing bacteria open in his laboratory in London before going on holiday with his family. When he returned he realised the dish had been contaminated with a fungus that had prevented the bacteria from growing. Further investigation led to the development of penicillin.
In 1970, American chemist Spencer Silver created a weak glue while actually attempting to develop a super-strong adhesive for the company 3M. No use could be found for the glue until his friend and churchgoer Arthur Fry began using it to stick a bookmark in his hymnbook. The glue gave him the ability to fix the bookmark for a short period of time before removing it and using it again at a later date. Today, post-it notes are one of the highest-selling stationary items in the world.
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