All these unintended discoveries were found by scientists seeking a different outcome. However, the happy accidents below have changed millions of people’s lives. Below are the top 10 legendary scientific accidents that are still exceptionally relevant in our day-to-day lives.
1.Teflon- Roy J. Plunkett
In 1938 at the DuPont Company’s Jackson Laboratory, chemist Roy Plunkett was working on a new chlorofluorocarbon refrigerant. As he was testing different chemical reactions in hopes of creating a new variety of chlorofluorocarbons, he accidentally discovered that his experiment had vanished, leaving mysterious chemical bits. This substance proved to be a new polymer called polytetrafluoroethylene, or Teflon, that is an excellent lubricant with an extremely high melting point. Cooks everywhere can thank Mr. Plunkett for their non-stick pans.
2. Super Glue- Harry Coover
At the Eastman-Kodak Laboratories in 1942, Dr. Harry Coover conducted a failed experiment. He intended to create a new substance, cyanoacrylate, for a new precision gun sight, but it stuck to everything it touched. It wasn’t until years later while working on a new design for airplane canopies, that Coover found the true beauty in cyanoacrylate, it formed an incredibly strong bond without needing heat. After some tinkering in the lab, Coover patented his accidentally discovery and Super Glue has been on the shelves ever since.
3. Artificial Sweetener- Constantin Fahlberg (and sort of Ira Remsen)
While working in a lab at John Hopkins University in 1897, Constantin Fahlberg and Ira Remsen paused to eat. Fahlberg had failed to wash his hands before eating—which typically has a nasty end for many chemists. Instead, he ended up noticing a strange sweet flavor during his meal. The two scientists set to work to publish their sweet findings, however, it was only Fahlberg’s name that is found on the Sweet’N Low patent.
4. Slinky- Richard James
As a Navy engineer, Richard James was tasked with trying to figure out how to use springs to keep the sensitive instruments on board their ships from becoming destroyed. In 1943, he accidentally knocked one of his prototypes over. Instead of crashing to the floor as expected, it gracefully slinked downward and then righted itself with no problem. A pointless discovery, but an entertaining one! The Slinky has since mesmerized several generations of kids.
5. Velcro- George de Mestral
If you’ve ever gone walking in nature, you might have brought home little stickers, or burrs. This is what Swiss engineer George de Mestral battled with every time him and his dog went out hunting and leaving him annoyingly pluck them all off. He later looked at the little burrs under a microscope and saw the tiny hooks that enabled the burrs to stick to fabrics and furs. After experimenting for years with different textiles, Mestral found that nylon worked best with his new Velcro technology. However, it would be two more decades before NASA made the fabric popular.
6. The Microwave- Percy L. Spencer
As an engineer at Raytheon after serving in the Navy, Percy Spencer was known as an electronics genius. And in 1945, he changed how the world eats. While working with a microwave-emitting magneton, which is used in radar arrays, he started to feel a warm sensation in his pants pocket. His chocolate bar that he had in his pocket had started to melt. Spencer discovered that the microwave radiation of the magnetron was the culprit. Leftovers were never the same again!
7. Play-Doh- Kutol Products
You might be shocked to know that Play-Doh was originally marketed as a cleaning product. The company, Kutol Products had sold the sticky goo as a treatment for filthy wallpaper. As the company headed for bankruptcy, it was the stories of children playing with their cleaning doh that that saved them. After removing the compound’s cleanser, adding colors, and giving it a fresh scent, Kutol spun their wallpaper cleaner into one of the most iconic toys of all time.
8. Bakelite- Leo Baekeland
Belgian chemist, Leo Baekeland was attempting to find a replacement for shellac—an expensive resin secreted by South Asian beetles. However, by combining formaldehyde with phenol, and a few other materials, Baekeland instead created a non-conductive and heat-resistant polymer that is literally used to make everything you see around you now. Baekeland named the new plastic after himself, Bakelite.
9. Vaseline- Robert Chesebrough
Looking to strike it rich in the oil fields, Chesebrough noticed his workers complaining about rod wax—an annoying, waxy substance that gummed up the drilling equipment. Chesebrough brilliantly saw profit in the nuisance and called in Vaseline, which he marketed as a treatment for cuts and burns. It is said that he even ate a spoonful of the slime every day.
10. Penicillin- Sir Alexander Fleming
We saved the best for last! This famous accidental discovery not only changed the world of medicine, but has saved thousands of lives. In 1928, Sir Alexander Fleming was experimenting with the influenza virus and ended up leaving his lab for around two weeks. When he returned he found that a mold had contaminated his staphylococcus cultures. Instead of destroying his experiment, he discovered that the bacteria was unable to grow anywhere near the mold, resulting in the invention of penicillin.