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Whoops, I Invented That!

May 08, 2012

Inventors often set out to solve a particular problem, but research, experimentation and sometimes blind luck can lead to unexpected results. In fact, some of the world's most enduring inventions - including the pacemaker - came about largely by accident.

Many of history's most amazing inventions and discoveries emerged accidentally, but have gone on to change the world in positive ways nonetheless.

Here we look at some of the greatest accidental inventions and the surprising events that led to their creation.

Synthetic Color

At just 18 years old, chemist William Perkin was looking for ways to cure malaria, but instead his scientific efforts yielded a fashion revolution and turned chemistry into a major money-making industry. In 1856, Perkin was working to develop a type of artificial quinine that could be used as a malaria treatment. His experiments produced a thick murky goop containing a beautiful, vibrant color. He'd stumbled upon the first-ever synthetic dye, which provided color that was brighter than anything found in nature and didn't wash out or fade. This resulted in a major revenue stream for 19th century chemists, and Perkin's dyes later inspired German bacteriologist Paul Ehrlich's pioneering work in immunology and chemotherapy.

Source: Discovery Science Channel

Smart Dust

Sometimes extraordinary things can emerge from disaster. University of California, San Diego, graduate student Jamie Link had her homework assignment blow up in front of her: as she was working on a silicon chip, it fell to pieces. However, she discovered that the broken pieces could still work as sensors, resulting in the first self-assembling, programmable silicon particles. Nicknamed "smart dust," each particle is a mirrored surface that can stick to a desired target and change color to signal what it has found. Today, the dust is used for detecting biological agents and in treating tumors.

Source: The Daily Beast (Newsweek)


Play-Doh began as a cleaning product for removing dirt and stains from wallpaper. Noah McVicker initially developed it for soap manufacturer Kutol Products. Just as Kutol was headed for bankruptcy, the inventor's nephew Joe McVicker, learned that schoolchildren found modeling clay too hard to shape, so he began supplying schools with his own squishy alternative, which kids used to create Christmas ornaments and arts and crafts projects. The product proved wildly popular, and after removing the cleaning compound, adding bright colors and a fresh scent, it was renamed Play-Doh.

Source: National Toy Hall of Fame


Artificial sweeteners are ubiquitous in the modern world, and can be found in everything from sodas to toothpaste. It may be surprising to learn that saccharin, one of the original sugar substitutes, came about through a lapse in hygiene. In 1879, Constantin Fahlberg, a chemist at Johns Hopkins University, was working to develop new uses for coal tar when he neglected to wash his hands before dinner one evening. He noticed his food had an unusually sweet taste, and further testing revealed he had stumbled upon the formula for saccharin, residue of which had clung to his hands. He and his colleague Ira Remsen published their results together, but Fahlberg claimed the incredibly profitable patent for himself.

Source: Bright Hub

The Pacemaker

Even a seemingly failed experiment can prove to be a success. In 1958, Wilson Greatbatch, a professor at the University of Buffalo, was attempting to build an oscillator to record heart sounds, but instead of picking out a 10,000-ohm resistor from a box, he mistakenly installed a 1-megaohm resistor. He thought his project was ruined, but the resulting circuit produced a signal that lasted 1.8 milliseconds before stopping for a second, much like a human heart. Greatbatch realized the current could be used to regulate a heartbeat, and unlike earlier television-sized heart rate machines, his small circuit design could be implanted within the chest.

Source: Gizmodo


X-rays are natural phenomena, but the first person to discover them and figure out how they could be applied to benefit humanity did so largely by accident. In 1895, German physicist Wilhelm Roentgen was conducting an experiment using cathode rays, and noticed a piece of fluorescent cardboard across the room was lighting up. He'd placed a thick screen between the cathode emitter and the cardboard, indicating that light particles were passing through this solid object. Roentgen soon discovered that pictures could be produced using this form of radiation, and the first X-ray images were born.