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February 21st, 2010 at 11:48 am

19 Accidental Discoveries That Changed The World

post it notes

Post-It Notes

The “ability to make unexpected discoveries by accident” the serendipity effect.To demonstrate the importance of serendipity, we’ve put together a list of 19 examples of unintentional discoveries that too often we find ourselves taking for granted. In no particular order.. (Pics)

 

POST-IT NOTES

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The invention of the humble Post-It Note was an accidental collaboration between second-rate science and a frustrated church-goer. In 1970, Spencer Silver, a researcher for the large American corporation 3M, had been trying to formulate a strong adhesive, but ended up only managing to create a very weak glue that could be removed almost effortlessly. He promoted his invention within 3M, but nobody took any notice.

4 years later, Arthur Fry, a 3M colleague and member of his church choir, was irritated by the fact that the slips of paper he placed in his hymnal to mark the pages would usually fall out when the book was opened. One service, he recalled the work of Spencer Silver, leading to an epiphany – the church being a good a place as any to have one, I suppose – and later applied some of Silver’s weak yet non-damaging adhesive to his bookmarks. He found that the little sticky markers worked perfectly, and sold the idea to 3M. Trial marketing began in 1977, and today you’d find it hard to imagine life without them.

SUPER GLUE

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More sticky stuff, though this one was famous for its high adhesive value, unlike Silver’s Post-It Notes. Superglue came into being in 1942 when Dr Harry Coover was trying to isolate a clear plastic to make precision gun sights for handheld weaponry. For a while he was working with chemicals known as cyanoacrylates, which they soon realized polymerized on contact with moisture, causing all the test materials to bond together. It was obvious that these wouldn’t work, so research moved on.

6 years later, Coover was working in a Tennessee chemical plant and realized the potential of the substance when they were testing the heat resistance of cyanoacrylates, recognizing that the adhesives required neither heat nor pressure to form a strong bond. Thus, after a certain amount of commercial refinement, Superglue (or “Alcohol-Catalyzed Cyanoacrylate Adhesive Composition”, to give it its full name) was born.

It was later used for treating injured soldiers in Vietnam – the adhesive could be sprayed on open wounds, stemming bleeding and allowing easier transportation of soldiers; adding a delicious layer of irony to the story in that a discovery made during an effort to improve the killing potential of guns ended up saving countless lives.

MODERN FINGERPRINTING

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Although the science of fingerprinting began with the work of Francis Galton in the nineteenth century, detectives still had trouble locating the tell-tale marks. Then, in 1982, some researchers at the US Army Criminal Investigation Laboratory in Japan cracked a fish tank. When they patched it together with superglue (cyanoacrylate), they noticed the fingerprints on the glass standing out in proud relief. The fumes from the glue had condensed on oils in the prints, rendering them highly visible. Cyanoacrylate is now an important weapon in the forensic scientist’s armoury.

VELCRO

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Often erroneously believed to have been developed as part of the American Space programme, Velcro was actually invented in 1948 by a Swiss engineer who had just been walking his dog. When George de Mestral got home, he noticed that both he and his pet were covered in burrs (the seed-sacs of plants that typically spread themselves by hitching rides on the fur of passing animals). Suddenly an idea struck him. Ignoring the dog, he plucked one of the offending items from his cloth jacket and raced to his microscope. Under magnification, the infuriating secret of the burr was revealed. It was covered with hooked strands, and these, he realised, would inevitably cling to the coat of a beast that rubbed up against it. In the case of his jacket, Mistral reasoned that the hooks formed an even firmer bond by slotting into tiny loops in the fabric.

Mistral knew at once that the burr principle could be used to develop a revolutionary fastening device, but it took him several years to perfect his invention. The main difficulty was getting the ‘loop’ side of the fastener right (the ‘hook’ side was more straightforward). The solution turned out to be to sew the loops from nylon under infra-red light.

In 1951, Mistral applied for a Swiss patent for an early version of his fastening system. He christened it ‘Velcro’ (the word is a combination of ‘crochet’ and ‘velour’) and opened his first factory the following year. In 1955, he obtained a US patent for his invention, and two years later Velcro went into production in Manchester, New Hampshire. Before long, the company was selling 60 million yards per annum. Looking at plants can pay.

TEFLON

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Teflon was invented in 1938 by a DuPont research chemist named Roy J plunkett. One day he was experimenting with a coolant called TRE (tetrafluoroethylene) to establish its suitability for refrigeration purposes.

For some reason, the pressurised cylinder of the gas filled earlier by Plunkett’s assistant failed to discharge properly when the valve was opened. Throwing all safety rules out of the window, the pair decided to cut it open to see what had happened.

Instead of a violent explosion, they found that the gas had solidified inside the cylinder to form a strangely slippery white powder. Indeed, tests revealed that it was the slipperiest substance in existence. It was also inert and had an extremely high melting point.

DuPont registered Teflon as a trademark in 1945 and started marketing products coated with the miracle lubricant the following year. Since then, Teflon has not only been used for millions of frying pans, but also in microchips, rocket shields and space suits. The product was immortalised as the nickname of the supposedly unprosecutable New York gangster John ‘Teflon’ Gotti (nothing would stick) and has even been applied to the creaking joints of the Statue of Liberty.

CELLOPHANE

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In 1900, Jaques E Brandenberger witnessed an anonymous Swiss diner spill red wine over a restaurant tablecloth. The cloth ruined, Brandenberger decided then and there to do something about it. But inventing a clear flexible film that could provide a waterproof layer for tablecloths was not as easy as he had expected. His experiments seemed only to render the cloth stiff, not waterproof.

Down but not out, Brandenberger noticed that the coating on his latest attempt peeled off as a transparent film, and, quick to realise that it was not a useless by-product but the start of something big, he set about developing a machine for the mass manufacture of what we know today as ‘cellophane’.

By 1908, Brandenberger had patented his invention and his machine. Today, cellophane finds use in food packaging, but is also the base for self-adhesive tapes such as Sellotape.

This article was taken from the book, ‘The Ideas Companion’ by Johnny Action. If you would like to read more, the book is available from Amazon.

VASELINE

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Robert Chesebrough was an enterprising young kerosene salesman who fell on hard times when his supply of sperm whale dried up. So in 1859, he went to seek his fortune in the oilfields of Pennsylvania. His quest turned out to be successful, but not in a way anyone could have imagined.

Soon after his arrival, Chesebrough noticed the oil works complaining about something they called ‘rod wax’. This was a very waxy substance that formed on their drilling equipment and gummed it up. It’s only redeeming feature as far as they were concerned was its ability to speed up the healing of small cuts and bruises.

Intrigued, Chesebrough took a sample of ‘rod wax’ back to his Laboratory in Brooklyn. Eventually, he worked out how to isolate the substance from the ordinary petroleum. Then he started to experiment with it, subjecting himself to all manner of cuts and burns before applying the petroleum jelly. Everything healed magnificently.

To popularise his invention, Chesebrough have it the name ‘Vaseline’ (from Wasser, the German for water and Elaion, Greek for oil). Then he embarked on a singularly masochistic road show, demonstrating his faith in his product by wounding himself in public before applying it.

Soon he was selling a jar a minute. His customers used Vaseline for every conceivable purpose from cleaning nasal congestion to cleaning furniture. By the end of the nineteen-century, Chesebrough was extremely rich and his petroleum jelly was breaking into Europe.

Cheseborough persisted with his ‘practise what you preach’ attitude toward Vaseline throughout his life. Shortly before he died at the impressive age of 96, he revealed that he had been eating a spoonful of the stuff every day for many years.

STAINLESS STEEL

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Harry Brearley was working to prevent corrosion in rifle barrels when he accidentally invented something that would revolutionise the world of cutlery. Not an obvious route, but Brearley was an observant chap and he knew when he had something worth keeping.

Brearley had a background in steel. His father was a steel melter and young Harry had followed his father into the industry. Through years of private study and night school he became an expert in the analysis of steel and in 1908, at the age of 37, was given the opportunity to set up the Brown Firth Laboratories for research purposes. It was under this guise that Brearley was given the job of looking at the problem of rifle barrels.

The rifle problem was simple: when the gun was fired, the heat and gases generated would quickly erode away the inner barrel. Brearley was given the task of finding a steel that would not erode away, he instantly set about combining varying amounts of chromium with steel to fix the problem.

Brearley made history on 13 August 1913 when his mix 0.24% carbon and 12.8% chromium with steel created the first ever stainless steel. And although Brearley didn’t immediately realise what he had created, the resistance of the metal to acids such as vinegar and lemon juice soon pointed him in the right direction.

At that time cutlery was made from silver or carbon steel, or plated with nickel. None of which were resistant to rust, so Brearley launched his ‘rustless steel’ (later renamed as the more catchy stainless steel) on the world with great gusto.

But it was not all smooth sailing. Brearley was initially unable to interest his employers in his new steel, but once they saw how well the product was selling, Brown Firth Laboratories soon changed their mind, claiming that they owned the patent because Brearley was working for them at the time of the invention. The dispute unresolved, Brearley resigned from the company in 1915, and became works manager at another works in Sheffield where he continued to produce stainless steel.

BLUE JEANS

jeans

No item of clothing is more American than the blue jeans invented and perfected in the last quarter of the19th century by Jacob Davis and Levi Strauss These two visionary immigrants, turned denim, thread and a little metal into the most popular clothing product in the world – blue jeans.

Jacob Youphes was born in 1834 in Riga Latvia. He came to the US and then to San Francisco in the 1854 and changed his name to Jacob Davis. He operated a tailor shop in New York City and Augusta, Maine.

By 1869, he had opened a tailor shop on the town’s main thoroughfare, Virginia Street. He began fabricating wagon covers and tents from a rugged off-white duck cloth sold by San Francisco’s Levi Strauss & Co.

In 1868 Jacob settled in Reno, Neveda tailoring fine clothing and manufacturing utilitarian items such as tents and horse blankets from “duck” (a sturdy cotton fabric) with copper rivets for added strength.

In the late 1870s a woman came to him for a pair of “cheap” pants for her “large” husband who had the habit of going through pants rather quickly. Having found that thread alone did not always adequately hold the pockets onto work pants, Jacob decided to try out rivets, which had proven their worth on horse blankets on the pockets for these pants.

By 1871 Davis was routinely using rivets on the pants he made, first on duck, soon after on denim, and was beginning to be imitated by other tailors. He contacted Levi Strauss, his fabric supplier, to help him apply for a patent.

The patent application was rejected several times by the patent office but finally granted jointly in the names of Davis and Levi Strauss & Company on May 20, 1873.

The term “Levi’s,” though, was not the company’s–it originated with the public, just as the public invented the term “coke” for Coca-Cola. But when the public started referring to the pants generically as “Levi’s,” the company quickly trademarked it. Unfortunately, because Davis didn’t insist on his name being included in the product name, Levi Strauss’ name alone became a synonym for the pants, leading to the spread of a myth that Strauss invented them.

PENICILLIN

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Everybody knows the story – or at least, should – the brilliant yet notoriously absent-minded biologist Sir Alexander Fleming was researching a strain of bacteria called staphylococci. Upon returning from holiday one time in 1928, he noticed that one of the glass culture dishes he had accidentally left out had become contaminated with a fungus, and so threw it away. It wasn’t until later that he noticed that the staphylococcus bacteria seemed unable to grow in the area surrounding the fungal mould.

Fleming didn’t even hold out much hope for his discovery: it wasn’t given much attention when he published his findings the following year, it was difficult to cultivate, and it was slow-acting – it wasn’t until 1945 after further research by several other scientists that penicillin was able to be produced on an industrial scale, changing the way doctors treated bacterial infections forever.

MICROWAVE

microwave

In 1945 Percy Lebaron Spencer, an American engineer and inventor, was busy working on manufacturing magnetrons, the devices used to produce the microwave radio signals that were integral to early radar use. Radar was an incredibly important innovation during the time of war, but microwave cooking was a purely accidental discovery.

While standing by a functioning magnetron, Spencer noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket had melted. His keen mind soon figured out that it was the microwaves that had caused it, and later experimented with popcorn kernels and eventually, an egg, which (as we all could have told him from mischievous childhood ‘experiments’), exploded.

The first microwave oven weighed about 750lbs and was about the size of a fridge.

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