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Top 10 Accidental Inventions
No. 10 - Saccharin
Saccharin, the sweetener in the pink packet, was discovered because chemist Constantin Fahlberg didn't
wash his hands after a day at the office.
Prepare to get icked.
The year was 1879 and Fahlberg was trying to come up with new and interesting uses for coal tar. After
a productive day at the office, he went home and something strange happened.
He noticed the rolls he was eating tasted particularly sweet. He asked his wife if she had done anything
interesting to the rolls, but she hadn't. They tasted normal to her. Fahlberg realized the taste must have
been coming from his hands -- which he hadn't washed.
The next day he went back to the lab and started tasting his work until he found the sweet spot.
No. 9 - Smart Dust
Most people would be pretty upset if their homework blew up in their faces and crumbled into a bunch of
Not so student Jamie Link. When Link was doing her doctoral work in chemistry at the University of
California, San Diego, one of the silicon chips she was working on burst. She discovered afterward,
however, that the tiny pieces still functioned as sensors.
The resulting "smart dust" won her the top prize at the Collegiate Inventors Competition in 2003. These
teensy sensors can also be used to monitor the purity of drinking or seawater, to detect hazardous
chemical or biological agents in the air, or even to locate and destroy tumor cells in the body.
No. 8 - Coke
There are many stories of accidentally invented food: the potato chip was born when cook George Crum
(yes, really his name!) tried to silence a persnickety customer who kept sending french fries back to the
kitchen for being soggy; Popsicles were invented when Frank Epperson left a drink outside in the cold
overnight; and ice cream cones were invented at the 1904 World's Fair in St. Louis.
But no food-vention has had as much success as Coke.
Atlanta pharmacist John Pemberton was trying to make a cure for headaches. He mixed together a
bunch of ingredients -- and don't ask, because we don't know; The recipe is still a closely guarded
secret. It only took eight years of being sold in a drug store before the drink was popular enough to be
sold in bottles.
No. 7- Teflon
After all the damage they've done to the ozone layer, chlorofluorocarbons, or CFCs, are persona non
grata. Back in the 1930s, however, they were (pardon the pun) the hot new thing in the science of
Young DuPont chemist Roy Plunkett was working to make a new a new kind of CFC. He had a theory
that if he could get a compound called TFE to react with hydrochloric acid, he could produce the
refrigerant he wanted.
So, to start his experiment Plunkett got a whole bunch of TFE gas, cooled it and pressured it in canisters
so it could be stored until he was ready to use it. When the time came to open the container and put the
TFE and hydrochloric acid together so they could react, nothing came out of the canister. The gas had
Only it hadn't. Frustrated and angry, Plunkett took off the top of the canister and shook it. Out came
some fine white flakes. Luckily for everyone who's ever made an omelet, he was intrigued by the flakes
and handed them off to other scientists at DuPont.
No. 6 - Vulcanized Rubber
Charles Goodyear had been waiting years for a happy accident when it finally occurred.
Goodyear spent a decade finding ways to make rubber easier to work with while being resistant to heat
Nothing was having the effect he wanted.
One day he spilled a mixture of rubber, sulfur and lead onto a hot stove. The heat charred the mixture,
but didn't ruin it. When Goodyear picked up the accident, he noticed that the mixture had hardened but
was still quite usable.
At last! The breakthrough he had been waiting for! His vulcanized rubber is used in everything from
tires, to shoes, to hockey pucks.
No. 5 - Plastic
In 1907 shellac was used as insulation in electronics. It was costing the industry a pretty penny to
import shellac, which was made from Southeast Asian beetles, and at home chemist Leo Hendrik
Baekeland thought he might turn a profit if he could produce a shellac alternative.
Instead his experiments yielded a moldable material that could take high temperatures without
Baekeland thought his "Bakelite" might be used for phonograph records, but it was soon clear that the
product had thousands of uses. Today plastic, which was derived from Bakelite, is used for everything
from telephones to iconic movie punch lines.
No. 4 - Radioactivity
Two words that you don't ever want to hear said in the same sentence are "Whoops!" and "radioactive."
But in the case of physicist Henri Becquerel's surprise discovery, it was an accident that brought
radioactivity to light.
Back in 1896 Becquerel was fascinated by two things: natural fluorescence and the newfangled X-ray.
He ran a series of experiments to see if naturally fluorescent minerals produced X -rays after they had
been left out in the sun.
One problem - he was doing these experiments in the winter, and there was one week with a long
stretch of overcast skies. He left his equipment wrapped up together in a drawer and waited for a sunny
When he got back to work, Becquerel realized that the uranium rock he had left in the drawer had
imprinted itself on a photographic plate without being exposed to sunlight first. There was something
very special about that rock. Working with Marie and Pierre Curie, he discovered that that something
No. 3 - Mauve
Talk about strange connections - 18-year-old chemist William Perkin wanted to cure malaria; instead his
scientific endeavors changed the face of fashion forever and, oh yeah, helped fight cancer.
Confused? Don't be. Here's how it happened.
In 1856 Perkin was trying to come up with an artificial quinine. Instead of a malaria treatment, his
experiments produced a thick murky mess. But the more he looked at it, the more Perkin saw a
beautiful color in his mess. Turns out he had made the first-ever synthetic dye.
His dye was far better than any dyes that came from nature; the color was brighter, more vibrant, and
didn't fade or wash out. His discovery also turned chemistry into a money -generating science - making it
attractive for a whole generation of curious-minded people.
But the story is not over yet. One of the people inspired by Perkin's work was German bacteriologist Paul
Ehrlich, who used Perkin's dyes to pioneer immunology and chemotherapy.
No. 2 - Pacemaker
This list wouldn't be complete without at least one absent-minded professor. But it's not flubber clocking
in at No. 2, it's a life saving medical device. That pacemaker sewn into a loved one's chest actually came
about because American engineer Wilson Greatbatch reached into a box and pulled out the wrong thing.
It's true. Greatbatch was working on making a circuit to help record fast heart sounds. He reached into a
box for a resistor in order to finish the circuit and pulled out a 1-megaohm resistor instead of a 10,000-
The circuit pulsed for 1.8 milliseconds and then stopped for one second. Then it repeated. The sound
was as old as man: a perfect heartbeat.
Louis Pasteur once said, "chance favors the prepared mind." That's the genius behind all these
accidental inventions - the scientists were prepared. They did their science on the brink and were able to
see the magic in a mistake, set-back, or coincidence.
Disagree with our ranking? Then cast your vote at the end and tell us who you think should be number
Of course penicillin is on the list!