Accidental Inventions From The Past
1954: Sir Alexander Fleming (1881-1955), noted bacteriologist and joint winner of the 1945 Nobel Prize for Medicine, at work in his laboratory in the Wright-Fleming Institute. (Photo by Chris Ware/Keystone Features/Getty Images)
Fleming's most famous contribution to medicine was the accidental discovery of penicillin in 1928.
Past inventions that have had a definite influence on our culture actually came about accidentally. Some of these “accidents” have produced megabucks for the inventors as well as breakthroughs in medical science and other avenues of living.
One of the scientific breakthroughs happened in 1928 when Alexander Fleming accidentally discovered penicillin. He was working on an experiment with bacteria and halfway through his experiment, he left to go on vacation. It was apparent that he was not a very tidy person because he left one of his dirty Petri dishes in the sink in his lab. When he returned from his vacation, he was quite surprised to find that bacteria had grown all over the dish except for one area. It was an area where mold had formed. And that mold, of course, led to the knowledge of what penicillin can do for our bodies.
Horace Wells, a dentist back in the 1800s inadvertently discovered the effects of nitrous oxide. Wells and his wife attended a demonstration of nitrous oxide but a friend of his took too much of it on the stage and became unaware of what he was doing (much like being intoxicated from drinking). While in this condition, he received a gash on his leg but was totally unaware of it, thus feeling no pain. When Wells realized this, he began using it on his patients, after first having his partner do a test on him while extracting a tooth from him. Later, when he went to Boston to present his discovery to the Massachusetts General Hospital, things did not go well. Because it was not given properly, the patient yelled out in pain, even though later, he admitted he didn’t remember feeling any pain. Wells was laughed to scorn and returned home the next day quite discouraged. His former partner later took credit for discovering ether anesthesia and Wells tried to fight it but to no avail. Just a couple of years later, after experimenting with ether, chloroform, and other chemicals, he became out of character and ended up in jail. When coming back to himself, realizing what he had done, he committed suicide. Ironically, twelve days before his death, the Parisian Medical Society voted, giving him the honor that was due him as the first to discover the way to perform surgery without pain. Sadly, he died without any knowledge of this.
In 1879, Ira Remsen and Constantin Fahlberg were working all day in the lab studying coal tar derivatives when Fahlberg left to go to dinner. Fahlberg had spilled some of the chemical on his hand and while dining, he tasted something sweet on the rolls but his wife did not. Later back at the lab the next day, he tasted the same substance and determined it to be what he later named saccharin. The next year, 1880, Fahlberg published the discovery and obtained a patent for it as if he alone made the discovery. Remsen was quite furious that Fahlberg did not even mention his name, especially since Fahlberg was studying with him in his lab at John Hopkins. Remsen became president of John Hopkins in 1901.
The year 1946 brought the accidental discovery of the microwave. After World War II ended, the engineer, Percy Spencer was looking for other ways to utilize the magnetron. The magnetron was an electron tube invented by physicists to generate microwaves that proved useful in radar systems to spot Nazi warplanes. While Spencer was standing next to the magnetron one day, the chocolate bar that he had in his pocket melted for no apparent reason. He then tried popping popcorn using the magnetron as well as cooking an egg. He obtained a patent for the microwave in 1945 and two years later, the first microwave was built which weighed 750 pounds and stood 6 feet tall.
Thomas Adams, in 1870, while experimenting with chicle which is the sap from a tree in South America, put a piece of it in his mouth. He was attempting to find a substitute for rubber at the time but after many failures, he was discouraged. When he put a piece of the substance in his mouth, he discovered that he liked the taste. He obtained a patent for it and began producing and selling it as chewing gum, at first without flavor. It wasn’t until 1875 when flavor was added by John Colgan. After that, Adams produced a flavored gum with Sassafras, then licorice or blackjack which sold for almost 100 years.
Many of these “accidental” discoveries have brought fulfillment to our lives in various ways.
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