Some of the man’s greatest discoveries have been made entirely by accident. If it weren’t for many of these things, life would be very different for us. Here is a list of the 10 greatest accidental discoveries that changed the world for good:
10. Vulcanized Rubber
Rubber rots badly and smells worse unless it’s vulcanized. Ancient Mesoamericans had their own version of the process, but Charles Goodyear rediscovered it in 1839 when he unintentionally (well, at least according to most accounts) dropped a rubber-sulfur compound onto a hot stove.
9. Chocolate Chip Cookies
According to Nestle, Mrs. Wakefield (owner of the Toll House Inn) was making chocolate cookies but ran out of regular baker’s chocolate, so she substituted it with broken pieces of semi-sweet chocolate, thinking that it would melt and mix into the batter. It clearly did not, and the chocolate chip cookie was born.
Wakefield sold the recipe to Nestle in exchange for a lifetime supply of chocolate chips (instead of patenting it and making billions!). Every bag of Nestle chocolate chips in North America has a variation of her original recipe printed on the back (margarine is now included both as a variant on butter and for those people who want to pretend it is healthy).
The Popsicle was invented by an 11 year who kept it secret for 18 years. The inventor was Frank Epperson who, in 1905, left a mixture of powdered soda and water out on the porch, which contained a stir stick.
That night, temperatures in San Francisco reached a record low. When he woke the next morning, he discovered that it had frozen to the stir stick, creating a fruit-flavored ice treat that he humbly named the epsicle. 18 years later he patented it and called it the Popsicle.
7. Artificial Sweetener
Speaking of botched lab jobs, three leading pseudo-sugars reached human lips only because scientists forgot to wash their hands. Cyclamate (1937) and aspartame (1965) are byproducts of medical research, and saccharin (1879) appeared during a project on coal tar derivatives. Yummy.
Medieval wine merchants used to boil the H20 out of wine so their delicate cargo would keep better and take up less space at sea. Before long, some intrepid soul – our money’s on a sailor – decided to bypass the reconstitution stage, and brandy was born. Pass the Courvoisier!
Teflon was invented accidentally by Roy Plunkett of Kinetic Chemicals in 1938. Plunkett was attempting to make a new CFC refrigerant, the perfluorethylene polymerized (say that 3 times fast!) in pressurized storage. In this original chemical reaction, iron from the inside of the container acted as a catalyst.
In 1954, French engineer Marc Grégoire created the first pan coated with Teflon non-stick resin under the brand name of Tefal after his wife urged him to try the material, that he’d been using on fishing tackle, on her cooking pans container.
Percy LeBaron Spencer of the Raytheon Company was walking past a radar tube and he noticed that the chocolate bar in his pocket melted. Realizing that he might be on to a hot new product he placed a small bowl of popcorn in front of the tube and it quickly popped all over the room.
Tens of millions of lazy cooks now have him to thank for their dull food!
3. Potato Chips
Chef George Crum concocted the perfect sandwich complement in 1853 when – to spite a customer who complained that his fries were cut too thick – he sliced a potato paper-thin and fried it to a crisp.
Needless to say, the diner couldn’t eat just one.
Swiss chemist Albert Hofmann took the world’s first acid hit in 1943 when he touched a smidge of lysergic acid diethylamide, a chemical he had researched for inducing childbirth.
He later tried a bigger dose and made another discovery: the bad trip.
Scottish scientist Alexander Fleming was researching the flu in 1928 when he noticed that a blue-green mold had infected one of his petri dishes – and killed the staphylococcus bacteria growing in it.
All hail sloppy lab work!