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Accidental Discoveries in Human History

by Leyou Jiang

As humans, we all make mistakes and accidents are frequent in society. Many terrible events were caused by accidents, such as the sinking of the Titanic or even a local car crash. However, there have also been many good and even crucial accidents that have benefited the human race.


The Microwave

One of the most influential accidents was the microwave. First discovered in 1945 by an American Engineer working for Raytheon, it ended up becoming a household essential in the later 20th century. The person in question, Percy Spencer, walked in front of a vacuum tube used to generate microwaves called the magnetron, and it melted a piece of chocolate in his pocket. He noticed this and quickly did many experiments with the magnetron. One of the most famous attempts at using it was his exploding egg incident, where an egg exploded in one of his experiments. However, in 1945, he successfully made a workable microwave. Later on, the model would be improved from a huge bulky shape to a more light and movable machine.



Penicillin is by far one of the most important discoveries of the 20th century. It was the savior of many lives and revolutionized modern medicine. However, it was first found out by accident when Scottish biologist Alexander Fleming took a vacation. Upon coming back from his vacation, he noticed a strange fungus in a culture he had left in his lab. When he checked the container, he noticed that the fungus had killed all of the bacteria in the culture. According to statisticians, his discovery of penicillin saved around 80,000,000 to 200,000,000 lives and is still saving lives to this day.



You see it every day! Whether it’s on your jacket, or on your shoes, velcro is an underappreciated commodity that has been used in many products. In 1942, a Swiss engineer Georges de Mestral found burrs – a small seed or dry fruit that has hooks or teeth – stuck to his pants and his dog’s fur. He looked closer and noticed that the hooks on the burr would cling to anything loop-shaped. He experimented with the burrs and developed Velcro, a combination of “velvet” and “crochet”. In 1960, NASA used this material in flight suits and even to help secure items in zero gravity. After that, it gained traction in the fashion industry, and to this day, it is used in clothing, shoes, and many other useful items.



A lesser-seen everyday essential item, Teflon serves a very important role in society. It was first discovered in 1938 when a scientist at DuPont, Roy Plunkett, was working on ways to make refrigerators safer by replacing the main refrigerants. These refrigerants such as ammonia, sulfur dioxide, and propane were not very safe for houses and could be dangerous. On a particular sample, however, Plunkett found out that his experimental sample was gone. Instead, a strange and lubricating resin that was resistant to extreme heat and chemicals was discovered. He experimented more with this material and it became more popular as the years went by. In the 1950s, the material was mostly used in the automotive industry, and later in the 1960s, the material would be used to create nonstick cookware.



One of the most influential drinks of the modern age, Coca-Cola, was actually found by accident. The American pharmacist, John Pemberton wanted to find a way to cure headaches. In the hopes of finding a magical solution to headaches, he mixed two ingredients: coca leaves and cola nuts. His lab assistant then accidentally mixed the mixture with carbonated water and created Coca-Cola. Years after this accident, this mixture would be changed bit by bit to the Coca-Cola we all know and love. However, the original creator, Pemberton, would die two years after, and would never bear the riches of a soft drink empire.
















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