And they are not alone. They are part of a long roll call of valued inventions discovered by mistake – either whilst researchers were purposefully seeking something else or just going about their everyday lives. Always interesting and often amusing too, we take a look at some of the most famous technological innovations that were stumbled upon quite unwittingly.
Love them or loathe them, if not for chance, microwave ovens might not have been invented at all. American Percy Spencer stumbled across the concept of microwaves heating food whilst working upon radar apparatus during World War Two when a microwave beam melted a chocolate bar in his pocket. Maybe he was lucky it wasn’t aimed a couple of inches to the left!
Anyhow, Percy realised he was on to something and experimented with popcorn, and then an egg…which promptly exploded in a researcher’s face. His company Raytheon produced the first commercially available microwave in 1947 – not quite what we are used to today though: It stood at over five feet tall and carried a price tag equivalent to more than $50,000 in today’s money!
If that story was not sweet enough for you try this one. Artificial sweeteners are part of everyday life. A useful alternative to sugar designed for those counting calories or with certain medical conditions. But how were they discovered? The answer for saccharine (as you may expect) was by complete accident. Ira Remsen, a chemistry professor at Johns Hopkins University ‘chemically’ discovered Saccharine in 1878, although he probably had no idea it was sweet. He had been studying sulfa benzoic acids, the chemical family from which benzoic sulfinide, or saccharine as we know it, would emerge.
It was another chemist Constantin Fahlberg who would discover the sweetness, and after collaborating with Remsen, would go on to file the patents solely in his own name with a degree of controversy. Fahlberg had been working in Remsen’s laboratory first for a commercial sugar importer and then as one of Remsen’s researchers. One evening Remsen arrived home from the laboratory to tuck into his dinner when he noticed his bread roll had an incredibly sweet crust. After putting two-and-two together he realised he must have spilled a substance onto his hands back at the lab that carried the sweet taste and then transferred it to the bread.
At this point the health and safety conscious amongst us may be thinking: ‘er, gloves?!’, or ‘how about washing your hands after touching all the chemicals?!!…or perhaps before eating your dinner?!!!’
It gets worse. He ran back to the laboratory and started drinking, or at least tasting, all the compounds he had been working on that day. Anyway, as history tells us, he found the right chemical, and although it took a few years to realise the potential for its application, saccharine was born.
This is quite a famous one, but so important to 20th century medicine that it is definitely worthy of inclusion here. Alexander Fleming was already well on the way towards a distinguished career when he accidently discovered penicillin. In 1928 he was studying influenza when he noticed that an unplanned mould growing in one of his culture dishes inhibited the staphylococci germ and named the active ingredient penicillin. (First Fahlberg, then Fleming – really, these scientists should practice better hygiene!) Having laid the groundwork, it would be other scientists would go on to develop penicillin as a drug.
Best known as a non-stick coating for saucepans, Teflon does have a far broader range of applications including in windscreen wipers, as stain repellent in carpets, in semiconductors and as a ingredient in many hair products. It’ s so useful because it has some remarkable properties: it’s slippery, or actually very slippery – one of the slipperiest substances in the world in fact! It is also chemically stable, non-corrosive and has a very high melting point. You’d think that with such attributes it may have been made to order – a custom material to solve a specific problem. But no! Like everything else on this list it was a complete fluke.
It was 1938 and scientist Dr Roy Plunkett of the DuPont chemical company was researching CFCs when one of his samples of TFE gas turned into a powder within its canister. Upon cutting it open, Plunkett and his assistant deemed it interesting enough to run tests before eventually handing it over to DuPont’s Central Research Department. Within 10 years, patents had been filed and Teflon was being sold for military and industrial use. And in the 1960s it stuck as a non-stick coating for saucepans. Nice to hear of an accidental invention that wasn’t as the result of some ghastly breach of hygiene standards!
Dr Simon Campbell and Dr David Roberts researchers at Pfizer were initially developing the famous little blue pills as a treatment for sufferers of angina. Researchers noticed it had a side effect of increasing blood flow to a gentleman’s nether regions. It would certainly have been interesting to have been a fly on the wall for that moment of discovery.
With research starting in the 1980s, Viagra hit the market in 1998 and has been of assistance to tens of millions of men since then. Dr Campbell was awarded a knighthood in the 2015 New Year’s Honours list but clarified to the BBC that he did not ‘invent’ Viagra but co-wrote the initial research proposal: “I’m not on the Viagra patent. If you want, I would say I was the father of Viagra because I laid the seed that started the project.” Apt choice of words Sir Campbell!
Radium and Polonium
This is another of the more familiar ‘accidental’ discoveries, and unfortunately a sad one. It is the story of Marie Curie. Marie Curie devoted much of her professional life to studying radioactivity. In July 1898, working with her husband Pierre, they jointly declared that they had discovered a new chemical element: Polonium. Before the year was out they had discovered another: Radium. These were not accidental in themselves, but the Curies were not fully aware of the harmful properties their discoveries had. Here’s an example, and one which would make our jaws drop with today’s knowledge: Pierre described at a Royal Institution Lecture in London in 1903 how, after tying a piece of Radium to his arm for 10 hours, it had left a burn and permanent scar. He went on to speculate of its potential application for treating cancer. In a twist of fate, he would not survive long enough to be finished off by this exposure to radiation. He was tragically struck down and killed by a Parisian tram in 1906. Marie continued her life’s work, fulfilling a breath-taking scientific career before eventually dying of leukaemia as a result of her prolonged exposure to radiation, at the age of 67.
Apple Pay and contactless payments may be the latest chapter in the long history of card payments, but credit cards have been evolving for decades. It was the introduction of the Diners Club Card in 1950 that is recognised as first credit card used widely, even though some forms of charge card or store card were in use before this. The story goes that businessman Frank McNamara was hosting a business dinner at Major’s Cabin Grill in New York and had the embarrassment in realising he had forgotten his wallet. Having survived the ordeal, he felt that one should have an alternative payment method to cash. With his business partner he developed such an alternative – a pocket sized piece of card (it really was cardboard back then) called the Diners Club Card. They used the card back at Major’s Cabin Grill before rolling it out. One year later they had 20,000 cardholders. Ten years later, the card switched from cardboard to plastic. By then, competitors were starting to crop up, including American Express, and the payment has continuously evolved ever since.
Brandy goes back a long way before credit cards, and it is difficult to credit one person with the discovery. However, legend likes to lay the responsibility with an unnamed Dutch trader from the 16th century. Wine was of course transported in wooden casks over the high seas and the more that could be carried, the more profitable each journey could be. Our mystery Dutchman came up with the idea of removing the water content of the wine through cooking it, to significantly reduce its volume in transit (which also helped for tax reasons). The thinking was that water could be reintroduced on arrival to get it back to the wine state.
The bad news was that cooking – effectively distilling – the wine and then storing it in wooden casks significantly altered the colour, taste and alcohol content of the wine. It could not be converted back into its original state. The good news was that it was rather nice anyway. It was given the Dutch name Brandewijn which translates as burnt wine, and from the Dutch we can see how it became ‘Brandy’. Chin-chin!
The friction match
Harnessing fire, the wheel… discoveries like these must go down among the greatest innovations of primeval mankind. So it seems amazing that it wasn’t until 1826 that the friction match – as an effortless method of starting fire – was properly invented. And even then it was an accident!
Prior to this, other matches had been invented but were considered curiosities. It was certainly not possible to mass produce them.
The friction match properly came of age in 1826 when an English chemist by the name of John Walker was experimenting with chemicals. The tip of his wooden stirring stick became coated in a sticky goo. When he attempted to scrape it off on his stone floor it ignited. Voila! Eureka! The friction match was born. John Walker knew his invention was interesting but failed to recognise the commercial potential. He would demonstrate it to acquaintances and one of the more commercial minded of these – Samuel Jones – promptly went off and set up a match business called Lucifers. Although a successful product, Lucifers were far from perfect. For starters they stank of sulphur – not pleasant. They were also unpredictable, sometimes flaring up dangerously. And they could burn so intensely that the tip would fall from the match and set clothes or furniture alight.
Super Glue has the dubious honour of being discovered accidentally… twice.
First time round, serial inventor Dr Harry Coover was researching the manufacture of clear plastic gunsights during the Second World War. As he worked through iterations he threw away a formulation that was useless as a gunsight, but was an excellent rapid bonding agent. Not interested at that time despite its remarkable properties he moved on.
Fast-forward to 1951 and Dr Coover was now working at Eastman Kodak supervising a project researching heat resistant acrylate polymers for jet canopies. One of his staff tried out the same formulation, which again demonstrated its remarkable stickiness and this time Dr Coover did not discard it, finally realising its potential. Its lab name was cyanoacrylate. His company launched it in 1958 under the rather flat name ‘Eastman#910’. Eventually their marketing guys must have got hold of it and came up with the much better name Super Glue. As well as a glue, it was also used during the Vietnam War as a field dressing to seal the wounds of soldiers on the way to hospital.
Could you be the next accidental research and development hero?
One of the key criteria of research and development for the purposes of qualifying for R&D tax credits is uncertainty of outcome. As these cases show, who knows what you could come up with: and who can tell whether it is likely to become a success or failure. Many business owners wrongly believe that unsuccessful R&D projects will not qualify for R&D tax credits, but in fact the opposite is true. If an advance was being sought then the R&D project can qualify for relief regardless of whether you have ultimately been successful in your aims. If you have an R&D project that you wish to discuss give ForrestBrown a call and we can talk you through your tax credit options. A typical qualifying company receives over £50,000 in relief annually, a game changing amount of money for many businesses, so R&D tax credits should always be considered by companies that incur costs developing new products, processes or services.