Accidental discoveries

Accidental discoveries

Science isn't exact!

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.


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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 infections.