Success comes to those who never stop making efforts. Sometimes, a scientist discovers or invents something in his lab/work space that he never intended to and that discovery or invention becomes the turning point of his career and sometimes even for the world. Today we look at 8 such accidental discoveries that changed the face of science in general and of the world in particular.
1. X-Rays: Wilhelm Roentgen (1895)
It was late afternoon of 8th November, 1895 when Wilhelm Roentgen, a German physicist was working in his laboratory on cathode ray tubes. For his experiment, he wanted to totally cover his tube with a cardboard so that no light escapes. When he did that, he noticed a faint shimmering from a bench a few feet away from the tube. Striking a match, he discovered the shimmering had come from the location of the barium platinocyanide screen he had been intending to use next.
Roentgen speculated that a new kind of ray might be possible. This new ray, unlike the light rays, could penetrate hard objects. He termed these new rays as X-Rays (X was something unknown). In the following weeks, he ate and slept in his lab while working on these new rays. Nearly two weeks after his discovery, he took the very first picture using X-rays of his wife Anna Bertha’s hand. When she saw her skeleton she exclaimed “I have seen my death!”
Today, X-Rays find many applications in medical physics and astronomy. This was the first time humans discovered something beyond the visible band of EM spectrum.
2. Penicillin: Alexander Fleming (1928)
In 1928 Sir Alexander Fleming, a professor of bacteriology, noticed mould had started to grow on his petri dishes of Staphylococcus bacteria colonies. While looking for the colonies he could salvage from those infected with the mould, he noticed something intriguing. Bacteria wasn’t growing around the mould. The mould actually turned out to be a rare strain of Penicillin notatum that secreted a substance that inhibited bacterial growth.
Penicillin was introduced in the 1940’s, helping open up the era of antibiotics.
3. Vulcanized Rubber: Charles Goodyear (1839)
Charles Goodyear wanted to create something useful out of rubber that would not freeze rock hard or melt in the Sun. He had put all his efforts to accomplish this task but had no success. The condition was that his family had started to starve.
But then one day, he poured some nitric acid on the gold coloured rubber to remove the color. He threw it in the trash as the rubber turned black. He saw that the rubber had become hard on the outside but was smooth on the other side. So he recovered it from the trash. But it still melted in high heat. He then started using sulphur in his experiments and accidentally tossed the rubber in air and it landed on a stove. But instead of melting, it charred, creating an almost leathery, heat-resistant waterproof substance.
Goodyear would never reap the benefits of his discovery and died $200,000 in debt. His surname and legacy live on, however, in the Goodyear Tire and Rubber Company, which was named after him nearly 40 years after his death.
4. Safety Glass: Edouard Benedictus (1903)
Do you thank the windshield of your car that never shatters into pieces like the ordinary glass? You should thank Edouard Benedictus for this accidental discovery in 1903.
Benedictus was working in his lab when accidentally a flask containing a solution of cellulose nitrate fell on the floor. The flask did break but it didn’t shatter into pieces like the ordinary glass. The pieces of glass were broken, but they stayed in place and maintained the shape of the container. Upon investigation Benedictus realised that somehow, the plastic coating had helped the glass stay together.
This was the first type of safety glass developed – a product which is now frequently used in car windshields, safety goggles, and much more.
5. Radioactivity: Henri Becquerel (1896)
Becquerel, a French chemist, was working on uranium enriched crystals in his laboratory. He believed that sunlight was the reason that caused the crystal to burn its image on the photographic plate. He saw dark clouds rolling in the sky and hence postponed his research to some other sunny day. He packed up his instruments and kept the crystals in his drawer along with the photographic plate. After a few days when he opened the drawer, he was stunned. The plates had been ‘fogged (as shown in picture); by the crystals even in the absence of sunlight. He speculated that some kind of rays were being emitted from the crystals. These rays were, however, weaker than Roentgen’s X-Rays. Becquerel didn’t go on to put a name to the phenomenon. He left that for two fellow scientists: Pierre and Marie Curie.
6. The Microwave: Percy Spencer (1945)
Sometimes all you really need to make the next leap in science is a snack. Percy Spencer was an American engineer who, while working for Raytheon, walked in front of a magnetron, a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves, and noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. In 1945 after a few more experiments (one involving an exploding egg), Spencer successfully invented the first microwave oven. The first models were a lot like the early computers: bulky and unrealistic. In 1967, compact microwaves would begin filling American homes.
7. Insulin: Oscar Minkowski and Josef von Mering (1889)
The discovery that allowed the scientists to manufacture insulin was an accident.
In 1889, two doctors at University of Strasbourg were trying to understand the effect of pancreas on digestion. So they removed the organ from a healthy dog. After few days, they observed something unusual. Flies were swarming around the dog’s urine. They tested the urine and found sugar content in the same. They realized that they had given diabetes to the dog by removing its pancreas. Those two never figured out what the pancreas produced that regulated blood sugar. But during a series of experiments that occurred between 1920 and 1922, researchers at the University of Toronto were able to isolate a pancreatic secretion that they called insulin.
8. The ‘Sound’ of Big Bang: Arno Penzias and Robert Wilson (1964)
In 1964, two astronomers were working with the Holmdel antenna in New Jersey. They were perplexed by the ever sustaining background noise in their signals. They thoroughly re-checked their antennas and cleaned all the pigeon poop from it but with no success. It was a constant sound in microwave frequency coming from all the parts of the sky. They realised later that they had accidentally discovered the ‘leftover radiation’ or the ‘afterglow’ of the big bang. This is known as the Cosmic Microwave Background (CMB) radiation. It is the solid proof in favour of the Big Bang theory. The two were rewarded the 1978 Nobel Prize in Physics.