Did you think all scientists were boffins, working really hard
in their lab until they cracked a tricky problem? Wrong! Lots of
discoveries and inventions that we take for granted today were
actually the results of careless scientists making a mistake.
Check out our top 5 accidental discoveries:
Accidental experiments with radiation? That doesn't sound like a
good idea! Roentgen, a German physicist, experimented with
radiation-producing cathode rays. He noticed that a fluorescent
screen in his lab started to glow whenever the cathode ray was
switched on. This wouldn't have been unusual, except for the fact
that the fluorescent screen was surrounded by cardboard. Roentgen
thought the thick cardboard would have blocked most of the
radiation. What would you do in that situation? Roentgen tried
placing a few objects between the tube and the screen and the
screen still glowed. Eventually, he put his hand in front of the
tube and saw the silhouette of his bones projected onto the screen.
Roentgen had discovered x-rays and at the same time worked out that
they could be used in medical science - what a great discovery!
Sometimes one accidental discovery can lead to another. Henri
Becquerel was intrigued by Roentgen's discovery of x-rays and
wanted to know if minerals that fluoresced produced x-rays.
Becquerel needed sun for his experiments, but unfortunately for him
it was the middle of winter. Fed up, Becquerel left his materials
in a drawer and waited for a sunny day. When he returned to the
equipment, Becquerel discovered something strange. A lump of
uranium that Becquerel had been testing had imprinted itself on a
photographic plate, just as if it had been exposed to light. But
how could this be? The equipment had been in a draw for several
days. Becquerel had just discovered radioactivity.
Some accidental inventions can save lives. Wilson Greatbach was
working on animal behaviour, studying blood pressure, heart rate
and brain waves in science experiments. During this time, Greatbach
met two surgeons who discussed the problem of patients with
irregular heartbeats, which can severely impact upon quality of
life and in some cases even kill. Eventually, Greatbach became a
professor of electrical engineering. Whilst designing a circuit to
help record fast heart sounds, Greatbach reached into his equipment
box to grab a resistor for his circuit. By mistake, he picked up
the wrong resistor and put it in his circuit. The circuit he made
pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds, stopped for a second, and then
repeated. Greatbach recognised the pattern immediately: it was a
human heart beat. Greatbach went on to develop this circuit into a
viable pacemaker, saving millions of lives.
The microwave is so well-used, you'd think that scientists knew
what they were doing from the beginning. Not true! Percy Spencer
was working on radar technology during WWII. Spencer must have had
a bit of a sweet tooth, as he had a chocolate bar in his pocket.
One day, whilst working on a magnetron - something that fires high
intensity beams of radiation - Spencer noticed that the chocolate
bar had melted. He thought that the invisible rays of
radiation produced by the magnetron had melted it somehow. Instead
of worrying about the effects that the radiation may have on his
body, Percy experimented with popping kernels of corn. Eventually,
Percy found a way of making a version suitable for home kitchens,
although it took a long time - Percy's first version was around 6
feet high! Now, nearly everyone in the western world has a
microwave in their kitchen.
No accidental discoveries list would be complete without
penicillin, probably the most famous accidental discovery of all.
Let's face it, Sir Alexander Fleming must have been pretty
disgusting. Who goes on holiday without cleaning up their filthy
experiments? But that's exactly what Fleming did. Fleming returned
from his holiday to discover a mould growing on his petri dishes.
Pretty grim, right? But, excitingly, no bacteria was growing around
the mould - the mould had killed it! Fleming grew the mould - this
time in a clean petri dish - and found that it produced a substance
that killed lots of bacteria. Fleming called this substance...wait
for it...mould juice. Now, we know it as
penicillin, as it is produced by the Penicillium group of
moulds. Penicillin has helped to save the lives of many people who
would otherwise have died from what are now treatable