It was happenstance that led to Alfred Nobel – he of Nobel Prize fame – to discovering dynamite. The Swedish chemist was also the owner of a factory manufacturing nitroglycerin, an unstable liquid explosive that was deemed insufficiently stable to be used widely. One day, Nobel dropped some on the floor, but the expected explosion never came. It had landed in some sawdust, which had stabilised the liquid. When Nobel added a second stabiliser, he had invented a reliable gunpowder that could be produced on an industrial scale.
Nothing particularly special was expected of the drug known by the prosaic name of UK92480. It was being developed by British scientists working for the pharmaceuticals giant Pfizer, with the aim of easing the pain of angina sufferers. When tested in the early 1990s, the results weren’t exactly overwhelming, but the drug provoked an altogether unexpected physical reaction for the male members of its testing group. The drug went to market as soon as regulations allowed and it became one of the best-known tablets of the last two decades. Its name? Viagra.
Percy Spencer’s discovery sounds like it was a scene from Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. A research physicist at the American defence contractor Raytheon, in 1945 he was working on a radar project. Standing in front of a magnetron, he felt a sticky sensation in his pocket. His chocolate bar had melted, but why? The curious Spencer then placed a bag of unpopped popcorn in front of the magnetron – it popped almost instantly. Spencer was a hero to the coporation’s bigwigs who, within a couple of years, were marketing the world’s first microwave oven.
Spencer Silver was a scientist at the 3M corporation who, in 1968, was briefed to develop a seriously strong glue. He came up with the opposite – a solution that was low in strength but potentially reusable. It didn’t have an obvious use until, six years later, a colleague of Silver’s called Art Fry hit upon the idea of using it to create bookmarks and memos – better known today as the Post-It note. The product’s iconic colour was also an accident; there was only yellow paper available to hand back in the lab back in 1974.
Arguably the most famous example of an accidental discovery. In 1928, as he prepared to take a holiday, Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming left some staphylococcus bacteria on a tray in his London lab. When he returned, the bacteria had spread, save for a patch of mould that was preventing further growth. A substance contained in the mould was responsible, which Fleming called penicillin. “When I woke up just after dawn on September 28, 1928, I certainly didn’t plan to revolutionise all medicine by discovering the world’s first antibiotic,” he later explained. “But I suppose that was exactly what I did.”
It’s an everyday product whose magical properties – flexible yet strong – we take for granted. But no-one actually set out to create cellophane. It was a Swiss engineer called Jacques E Brandenberger who inadvertently discovering a new wrapping for fresh food. After a work colleague had spilled some wine while eating his packed lunch, he had set about inventing a waterproof tablecloth. The use of a liquid viscose didn’t fit the bill – it was too stiff – but, on peeling it off, he discovered that the coating could be removed as a single piece of transparent film. Brandenberger had become a legend in his own lunchtime.
A Russian chemist’s less-than-fastidious hygiene turned him into a rich man. Constantin Fahlberg was a chemist working at Johns Hopkins University in the 1870s. On the day in question, he had been analysing the chemical compounds of coal tar and, when back at home that evening having his dinner, found that the traces of the compound sulphamine benzoic left on his fingers tasted sweet. Fahlberg had discovered saccharine. He discreetly lodged patents in many countries and quickly accumulated notable wealth.
John Harvey Kellogg was the superintendent of a sanitarium in Michigan who promoted bland, vegetarian foods as a way of controlling the urges of his patients. One day in 1894, he and his brother had cooked some wheat which they had allowed to sit and cool. When they returned, the wheat had gone stale and came apart as flakes. Once they’d been toasted, these were fed to the patients, who appeared appreciative. A patent for “Flaked Cereals and Process of Preparing Same” was filed the following year and granted less than 12 months later. Corn Flakes were born.
John Pemberton was a veteran of the American Civil War. Having served as a Confederate colonel, he had developed an addiction to morphine while recovering from his battlefield injuries. A pharmacist by trade, he aimed to find a cure for morphine dependence and created Pemberton’s French Wine Coca. When Prohibition legislation was introduced in the mid-1880s, he made a non-alcoholic version instead – and called it Coca-Cola. Its morphine-busting properties weren’t apparent, though. Pemberton died a poor addict, prior to his creation becoming the world’s bestselling drink.
In 1938, Roy J Plunkett, a scientist at the DuPont corporation, was working on the development of new refrigerants when one of his experiments produced a white powdery substance. Tests showed that this residue was not only heat-resistant but also that few other substances stuck to it. Quickly patented by DuPont, it became known as Teflon and was initially used as part of the Manhattan Project that was engaged in nuclear weapon research. It took French engineer Marc Grégoire to apply Teflon’s non-stickiness to domestic cookware in 1954, revolutionising the practice of millions of amateur chefs.